Edward Elmore: Court found “grave questions” about guilt, but defendant never exonerated

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This story is the sixth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

In January, 1982, a Greenwood, South Carolina resident was found dead in her bedroom closet by her neighbor, Jimmy Holloway.

As Holloway, a local county councilman, described what happened: Dorothy Edwards, a 75-year old widow who lived next door, had told him that she was going out of town. But when he saw her car parked in her driveway two days later, he went to investigate, found the back door open, and saw signs of a disturbance. He walked further into the house, and while in the bedroom saw a large amount of blood on the floor and a knife lying nearby, along with an empty bag.

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Unrequited Innocence

At that point, by his telling, Holloway did not open the adjacent closet door. Instead, “being very excited,” he went to get a neighbor, from whose house they called the hospital to see if Edwards was there. The neighbor then accompanied Holloway back to the house where, he said, he put on gloves that were in his back pocket, opened the closet door and found Edwards’s brutalized body.

Edward Lee Elmore

Diana Holt

Edward Lee Elmore

Holloway called the police and waited in the driveway; after they arrived, he told them the name of the murderer could be found in Edwards’s check register.

There, the police found a $43 check written weeks earlier to Edward Lee Elmore, a mentally-handicapped 23-year old whom Edwards had hired to clean her gutters and wash her windows. When the police found Elmore’s thumbprint on the outside back door frame, Elmore was arrested and charged with murder, rape and robbery.

Elmore’s trial began on April 12, 1982, before a jury of which 10 members were white and two were black. Elmore’s lead defense lawyer was the local public defender, Geddes D. Anderson, who later denied an investigator’s allegation that he had been “drunk through the whole trial” but acknowledged that he believed “the son-of-a-bitch did it.”

The state’s case relied heavily on Dr. Sandra Conradi, a forensic pathologist who performed Edwards’s autopsy. Edwards had been stabbed repeatedly in the head, neck and chest, with more than 70 separate injuries, including defensive wounds to her hands and arms, fractured ribs and vaginal abrasions Conradi said were indicative of sexual assault.

The theory that Edwards was raped was supported by state forensic chemist Earl Wells, who testified that he had determined to “a very high degree of probability” that Elmore was the source of pubic hairs police claimed they recovered from Edwards’s bed. A state forensic serologist testified that spots of Type A blood – Edwards’s type, shared by 40 to 45 percent of the population, had been found on a pair of blue jeans found in Elmore’s room.

Two state police testified that Elmore told them that if he killed Edwards he could not remember it. A jailhouse informant, James Gilliam, testified that Elmore had spontaneously confessed that he went to her house to rob her but killed her because “she wouldn’t quit screaming.” He added that Elmore said he knew that “the police couldn’t have no fingerprints of his because he had wiped everything down when he left.”

Elmore took the stand to deny the statements attributed to him by Gilliam and the police.

After two and a half hours, the jury found Elmore guilty of murder, criminal sexual conduct, house-breaking and burglary. Two days later, while the jury was in the sentencing phase, Judge E.C. Burnett III went unaccompanied into the jury room and asked about their progress. Shortly after, the jury recommended a death sentence.

When Burnett asked Elmore if he wanted to say anything at sentencing, he responded, “I’d like to say I did not commit that crime Your Honor said I did.” Burnett sentenced Elmore to death in the electric chair.

After the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial, finding the judge’s visit with the jury “highly improper” and in violation of Elmore’s right to be present at all stages of his trial, Elmore faced a retrial before a new judge. Elmore’s request for a new lawyer was denied, and the same prosecutors and defense attorneys took on the retrial. The evidence presented to a jury of eight white and four black jurors was virtually unchanged; the jury again found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the conviction and sentence even though the trial judge prohibited Elmore from calling as witnesses at sentencing three prison guards who would have testified to how he adapted to prison life, testimony that could have mitigated the death sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back for a new sentencing hearing on that issue.

Again, the new proceeding ended in Elmore being given the death sentence, again affirmed by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 1989.

Six years later, attorney Diana Holt of the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center and J. Christopher Jansen of New York filed a post-conviction petition, identifying a range of apparent misconduct by the prosecution and failures by the defense.

Holt and Jensen contended that the pubic hairs and blood supposedly linking Elmore to the crime had been planted by police, based on the fact that investigators had not photographed the pubic hairs after their purported discovery, and that copious amounts of blood, not tiny spots, would have been on the killer’s clothing after the murder.

The petition detailed that the prosecution falsely alleged a fingerprint found on Edwards’s toilet had been unidentifiable, when in fact she and Elmore had been eliminated as its source; further, the prosecution suppressed the fact that a Caucasian pubic hair from someone other than Edwards had been found on her body, indicating the killer had been white.

The previously secret evidence led Holt to suggest the crime had been committed by Holloway, who acknowledged rumors he had been having an affair with Edwards. Shortly before Holloway’s death in 1994, he told Holt that the police had initially questioned him because “neighbors probably told [the police] me and Dorothy were having an affair.” Edwards’s daughter said that her planned trip had probably been to visit a man she planned to marry in North Carolina.

A new forensic analysis by Dr. Jonathan Arden indicated the crime most likely occurred a day or two later than prosecutors contended at trial — dates when Elmore had a corroborated alibi. Arden said it was “extraordinarily unlikely and improbable really in the extreme” that the murder occurred on the date prosecutors contended.

Additionally the jailhouse informant James Gilliam recanted his trial testimony, saying at an evidentiary hearing that he had lied because a jail administrator had promised him, “You help me out on the Elmore thing, we’ll look after you.”

Despite the new evidence, state post-conviction relief was denied, though Elmore’s sentence was reduced to life in prison in 2010 on the ground that his limited mental capacity prohibited execution. The post-conviction petition went, ultimately, to federal courts, where the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed and remanded for another retrial in 2011, holding that Elmore had been denied effective assistance of counsel.

The Fourth Circuit panel concluded Elmore’s petition raised “grave questions about whether it really was Elmore who murdered Mrs. Edwards.”

The prosecution offered Elmore a choice: He could face a fourth trial, or be immediately released from prison if he accepted a plea agreement, maintaining his innocence while acknowledging there was sufficient evidence that a jury could find him guilty.

Elmore was released from prison after 30 years in custody on March 3, 2012. He died on Dec. 3, 2018.