Edward Lee Elmore Passes

I am very sad to hear that Edward Lee Elmore passed away this week.

I couldn’t find any news articles to commemorate his passing, so… well, here’s mine. If you knew Elmore, or if you know his story, you know why it is important to not let the state of South Carolina forget.

If you don’t know his story, take a few minutes to read about him – you can continue reading below, or you can read Raymond Bonner’s book about him, Anatomy of Injustice.

Who was Edward Lee Elmore? I confess I don’t know him personally and I don’t know anything about his family. Unfortunately, for me and most attorneys who know of him, his life is defined by his incarceration.

His life is defined by how the state of South Carolina took his life away from him.

Edward Lee Elmore: Three Jury Trials, Three Convictions

Elmore was a black man in South Carolina who was accused of raping and murdering an elderly white woman.

I try to put myself in the shoes of a “good old boy” reading that line and imagine the horror of a black man desecrating a helpless, elderly white woman, to try and understand how and why Elmore was arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for the crime.

When I try to put myself in the shoes of a black man in rural South Carolina who is wrongfully accused of raping and murdering an elderly white woman, I am overwhelmed with hopelessness and helplessness. His life is over…

After an eight-day trial in Greenwood SC in 1982, Elmore was convicted and sentenced to die for his crimes. His conviction was overturned, but the state kept on going, determined to kill him for his crimes.

Twice more juries convicted him and sentenced him to die. Two SC post-conviction relief courts denied relief. After spending more than half his life in prison waiting to die – 30 years – the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals finally ordered a new trial and he was back at square one:

Having scrutinized volumes of records of Elmore’s three trials and his state PCR proceedings, we recognize that there are grave questions about whether it really was Elmore who murdered Mrs. Edwards. And we are constrained to conclude — notwithstanding the demanding strictures of § 2254(d) — that Elmore is entitled to habeas corpus relief on his Sixth Amendment claim of ineffective assistance of counsel premised on his trial lawyers’ blind acceptance of the State’s forensic evidence. All told, Elmore’s is one of those exceptional cases of “‘extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems’” where § 2254 may appropriately be used to remedy injustice. Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332 n.5 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring in the judgment)). Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s judgment denying relief and remand for the court to award Elmore a writ of habeas corpus unless the State of South Carolina endeavors to prosecute him in a new trial within a reasonable time.

The Fourth Circuit’s view of the performance of police and prosecution in Elmore’s case can easily be summed up:

There was “persuasive evidence that the agents were outright dishonest,” and there was “further evidence of police ineptitude and deceit,” Judge Robert Bruce King wrote.

Raymond Bonner, the author of Anatomy of Injustice, pointed out in a NY Times opinion piece that Elmore wasn’t just a guy who didn’t get a fair trial. He wasn’t someone who was present at the scene of the murder while someone else pulled the trigger. He had nothing to do with the crime:

… in the case of Mr. Elmore, I am convinced beyond a scintilla of a doubt that he had nothing to do with the Greenwood woman’s death. His conviction resulted primarily from a rush to judgment — and flagrant prosecutorial misconduct.

Bonner says that Elmore’s case stands out from other death-row exonerations

…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.

Why was Elmore Convicted?

Elmore was identified as a suspect after the victim’s neighbor told police that Elmore had cleaned the victim’s windows and gutters the month before the murder.

Police then arrested Elmore after they found his thumbprint on the victim’s back door… (do I need to say why the thumbprint was not evidence of Elmore’s involvement in the murder?)

Additional blood and fingerprint evidence pointed to his innocence, but the prosecutor never turned it over to the defense attorneys.

A Negroid Hair

The prosecutor, William Townes Jones III, said “he had authorized the arrest after being told that during the autopsy, the doctor had found a “Negroid” hair on the victim’s abdomen.”

The hair was sent to SLED and supposedly analyzed by SLED agent Earl Wells, who testified at Elmore’s trial. That “Negroid hair” then disappeared and was never tested by Elmore’s defense attorneys.

Miraculously, the sealed and labeled bag containing the hair was rediscovered 16 years later… in Earl Wells’ filing cabinet. When the state retested the hair, it turns out that it belonged to a Caucasian person, it did not belong to the victim, and it was likely that it belonged to the killer…

But, A Whole Bag Full of Hairs…

When Elmore was arrested, police collected pubic hairs from his groin for comparison to any hairs found at the crime scene.

At trial, prosecutor William Townes Jones III presented a bag of 53 pubic hairs that he said were collected from the victim’s bed. On the witness stand, SLED agent Earl Wells testified that there were only 49 hairs collected. But only 42 hairs were in the bag because he had taken out seven for analysis.

The bag of hairs presented at trial was not sealed – to preserve the chain of custody, evidence bags are always sealed, labeled, and dated by each person who handles them. Why? Because, as in Elmore’s case, anyone could have accessed the bag and placed the evidence in it. Say, pubic hair collected from the defendant when they were arrested?

Police took nearly 100 photos of the house where the murder happened, including multiple pictures of the guest room and the bed in the guest room, where nothing had happened. What they didn’t do is take any pictures of the bed where the assault and murder happened or pictures of the sheets where they claimed to have collected the hairs.

They also did not collect or test the sheets where the crime was supposed to have happened.

What About the Neighbor?

What happened to the neighbor? Remember, the one who told police they should take a look at Elmore?

When Elmore’s PCR lawyer, Diane Holt, interviewed him in 1993, he told her, “I am the only one who could kill her and get away with it, the way she trusted me so.”

The neighbor, Greenwood City Councilman Jimmy Holloway, died the following year.

What do You Want, Freedom or Justice?

Even after Elmore’s attorneys presented clear evidence of incompetence and deception on the part of police and the prosecution, and even after the Fourth Circuit vacated Elmore’s conviction again, the new prosecutor, Jerry Peace, refused to dismiss the case.

After serving 30 years in prison – a full-length sentence for a murder conviction – solicitor Jerry Peace insisted that Elmore plead guilty to murder and receive a time-served sentence.

Which left Elmore and his attorneys with a choice – freedom or justice?

In 2012, knowing that it could take another year or longer for a new trial, Elmore chose to plead guilty while maintaining his innocence, receive a time-served sentence (which would also result in waiving any possibility of receiving compensation for his wrongful conviction and prison sentence), and go home.

There was no Justice in this case and no possibility of achieving it. The victim met a terrible, tragic end. Elmore lost half of his life waiting to die in prison. The murderer, whoever it was, lived out his life knowing that Elmore took the fall for him.

I hope that Mr. Elmore found peace in the years since his release. I hope that he rests in peace and that he has found Justice on the other side.

And, I hope that he is remembered.

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Myrtle Beach, Lexington, and Columbia SC

Lacey Thompson is a SC criminal defense attorney with offices in Columbia and Myrtle Beach, SC. We only accept criminal cases.

If you have been arrested and charged with a crime in SC, or if you believe you are under investigation, call us now at 843-444-6122 or email me to set up a free consultation about your case.

Edward Lee Elmore

2 Responses to “Edward Lee Elmore Passes

  • Dear Ms Thompson: Thank you for remembering Edward Lee Elmore. His story is what inspired me to pursue a career in public interest law after I watched a 2014 CNN Death Row Stories episode (if you haven’t watched it yet, I would highly recommend it – I’ve watched it a few times now and I still get chills). I actually wrote a letter to the Michigan Innocence Clinic after I started law school at Wayne State University in 2015 to express my interest in an internship. Fortunately for me, the supervising attorneys there broke with tradition and hired a non-Michigan Law student for the first time ever! The work that I did there contributed to the release of Mubarez Ahmed, a man who had been wrongly convicted of a 2001 Detroit double homicide. The Legal News released an article on my involvement with his case (http://legalnews.com/macomb/1464789) and now Mr. Ahmed is a free man who is finally able to reconnect with his loved ones. Had I not watched that CNN episode on Mr. Elmore’s plight and the courageous work that Diana Holt and her team completed, maybe Mubarez would still be incarcerated. I actually sent Mrs. Holt an e-mail thanking her for inspiring me and she e-mailed me back and asked me to stay in touch. Anyway, I wanted to let you know that Mr. Elmore’s life means something to me and I am so deeply thankful to know that it means something to you, too.

  • Elizabeth Spencer
    4 months ago

    I just watched a program on the Juctice Channel which chronicled a portion of the investigation by a P.I. of the case in an effort to get justice for Mr. Elmore. I was yelling at the TV when the show ended without him having gained his freedom. Upon further research, I was even more infuriated to find that he spent another decade or more incarcerated from the time the show left off. The officers and prosecutors in this case, as well as the jurors, exemplify the pervasiveness of racism that still exists in the U.S., the South in particular. Mr. Elmore was quite obviously the victim of racist cronyism and a cover up that ultimately let the white, connected murderer get away with this horrific brutal act. I am saddened that he was able to enjoy only a few years of freedom. Bless you, Ms Holt, the Innocence Project and the like; for the amazing work all of the legal professionals who work countless hours to exonerate and free the innocent. I admire Mr. Elmore for being able to remain positive throughout this horrific, nearly lifelong ordeal. He was an example to all of us!!! I hope he shared some years of joy with his lovely sister and the rest of his family before his passing. RIP Mr. Elmore.

    (for anyone who thinks otherwise I just want to clarify that I am a white woman)

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