A veteran journalist focuses on a grisly murder case to explore the legal issues that commonly arise in our ongoing national debate about capital punishment.
In 1982, the stabbed, beaten and bloodied body of widow Dorothy Edwards was discovered stuffed in a closet in her Greenwood, S.C., home. Within 90 days, a local African-American handyman, Edward Lee Elmore, was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. The dim-witted, mentally retarded 23-year-old insisted from the beginning on his innocence. However, following appeals, two more juries said he was guilty. A talented, relentless handful of appellate attorneys—including one, Diana Holt, whose turbulent life story is book-worthy by itself—argued over a period of 22 years that Elmore had been deprived of a single fair trial. Aside from the defendant’s minority race and poverty, predictable constants on any state’s death row, the lawyers turned up a series of disturbing irregularities, some of which occur in any capital case, all of which applied to Elmore: the sloppy crime-scene investigation by law-enforcement officials; their mishandling, mischaracterizing and perhaps even planting of evidence; the ineffective assistance of trial counsel, who failed to interview key witnesses and to vigorously test the state’s evidence; the inexperience or imperiousness of judges failing properly to instruct the jury; the zeal of prosecutors, more desirous of victory than of doing justice, who withheld possibly exculpatory evidence. The story also features jailhouse snitch testimony (recanted), arguments over DNA testing and a tantalizing, circumstantial case against an Edwards neighbor. Pulitzer Prize winner Bonner (At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife, 1993, etc.) weaves all this together with discussions of pertinent Supreme Court opinions, capsule tales of other, relevant capital cases and sharp mini-portraits of the case’s lawyers and judges. A last-minute stay of execution and a 2005 writ of habeas corpus that successfully argued Elmore could not be killed under the Supreme Court’s 2002 Atkins decision, prohibiting execution of the mentally retarded, spared him from the electric chair. He remains in prison.
A powerfully intimate look at how the justice system works—or doesn’t work—in capital cases.