Edward Lee Elmore spent 31 years in prison, 29 of which were on death row. In 2010, after an assessment due to the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins, Edward was released from death row because of his intellectual disability. Then, on November 22, 2011, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a 163-page opinion disagreeing with the decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina to deny habeas relief to Edward. The Fourth Circuit held that the failure of his trial lawyers to investigate forensic evidence constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. Edward was released from prison on March 3, 2012.
Edward, an African-American man, was convicted of raping and murdering an elderly white woman. Edward was hired several times by this woman to perform different jobs in her home. When a neighbor called the police to say he discovered the body in the bedroom closet and immediately identified Edward as a suspect, police pursued the investigation. They found a thumbprint on the exterior frame of the backdoor and, relying on the thumbprint, obtained a warrant and arrested Edward. The neighbor, who gave significant details about the murder to the appellate attorneys, was not considered a suspect and died before attorneys could follow up on his statements.
His first trial began less than 90 days after the victim’s body was found. At trial, the prosecutor said 53 hairs were gathered from victim’s bed where the rape allegedly took place, and most were Edward’s pubic hairs. It was the only physical evidence that put Edward inside the house at the time of the crime. But the forensic witness examining the hairs said there were only 49 hairs, and 7 were removed from the evidence because they needed to be examined. The defense attorneys did not say anything about the discrepancy. The bag also wasn’t sealed, suggesting that hair could have been put in at any point. There were also no photos of the bed where police said the rape took place, and the police did not take the sheets as evidence.
Volunteer attorneys from Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman (“CLL”) took on the case on appeal in 1992. CLL attorneys, along with Diana Holt, turned up new evidence that the state had sought to hide and that pointed to Edward’s innocence. For instance, at trial, the prosecutor said that he found a black hair on the victim, which matched the hairs from the bag. But the prosecutor did not turn over the evidence to the defendant, as required under Brady, and the hair also disappeared. When the hair was eventually found, the appellate attorneys for Edward had the hair DNA-tested and discovered it was not his. Further, it was not even a black hair, but belonged to a Caucasian person, such as the neighbor. Other pieces of evidence of misconduct were uncovered ahead of the appeal. First, one witness claimed he lied after making a deal with the prosecution in exchange for release from prison, and that Edward only ever said he did not commit the crime. Second, medical examiners at the original trial also testified that the victim did on Saturday night during the hours Edward did not have an alibi, but a new examiner said the victim died on Sunday afternoon. Edward’s low IQ and severe memory deficits explained the inconsistencies in his statements to police and also made it highly improbable that he was responsible for the crime. Last, there was evidence that blood was planted, and Edward’s clothing was tampered with. The judge still ruled against Edward, saying that one hair was not enough, and the South Carolina Supreme Court agreed.
Although the volunteer attorneys faced significant obstacles, the Fourth Circuit eventually recognized that Edward’s case was “one of those exceptional cases of ‘extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems’” and questioned his trial attorneys’ “gross failure . . . to investigate the State’s forensic evidence.” They remanded for a new trial, but Edward’s appellate attorney knew that he would be in prison longer if they waited. Ultimately, his release was part of an agreement whereby he denied involvement in the crime but pleaded guilty in exchange for his freedom. It was his 11,000th day in jail. Even though he was still not fully exonerated on the day he walked out, his story would not even have been heard if not for his attorneys.