Edward Lee Elmore was released from prison in South Carolina on March 2 after agreeing to a plea arrangement in which he maintained his innocence but agreed the state could re-convict him of murder in a new trial. He had been on death row for nearly 30 years after being convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the sexual assault and murder of an elderly woman in Greenwood, South Carolina. The state’s case was based on evidence gathered from a questionable investigation and on testimony with glaring discrepancies. Elmore’s appellate lawyers discovered evidence pointing to Elmore’s possible innocence that prosecutors had withheld. Originally, state officials repeatedly claimed the evidence had been lost. The evidence included a hair sample collected from the crime scene. After being tested for DNA, the evidence suggested an unknown Caucasian man may have been the killer. In February 2010, Elmore was found to have intellectual disabilities and thus was ineligible for execution; he was taken off death row. In November 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit granted him a new trial because of the prosecutorial misconduct in handling the evidence. The court found there was “persuasive evidence that the agents were outright dishonest,” and there was “further evidence of police ineptitude and deceit.”
Raymond Bonner, a former New York Times reporter who wrote a book about the case (“Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong”), said Elmore’s journey through the justice system “stands out because it raises nearly all the issues that shape debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, a jailhouse informant, DNA testing, bad defense lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct and a strong claim of innocence.” He noted, “Once a person has been convicted, even on unimaginably shaky grounds, an almost inexorable process — one that usually ends in execution — is set in motion. On appeal, gone is the presumption of innocence; the presumption is that the defendant had a fair trial. Not even overwhelming evidence that the defendant is innocent is necessarily enough to get a new trial.”
(R. Bonner, “When Innocence Isn’t Enough,” New York Times, March 2, 2012). See Innocence and Intellectual Disabilities.