By JINJOO LEE
In 2012, 53-year-old Edward Lee Elmore walked out of prison, having spent three decades behind bars, most of which he spent on the death row. Despite evidence showing his innocence, Elmore had been convicted three times for sexual assault and murder. Without the persistence of Prof. John Blume, law, defense attorney Diana Holt and litigator Chris Jensen, Elmore may have never left prison.
Elmore’s story, told by Blume and others involved in the case, will be featured in the first episode of CNN’s new series, Death Row Stories, which will premiere Sunday. The series, directed by Academy Award-winning directors Alex Gibney and Robert Redford, will reveal “America’s most compelling capital murder cases,” according to CNN.
Blume, who argued for Elmore’s third direct appeal, said the case showed everything that was wrong with the American death penalty system: incompetent counsel, racial bias, prosecutorial misconduct and what Blume described as “junk” forensic science.
Blume was an executive director of South Carolina Death Penalty Center when he assigned defense attorney Diana Holt — who was then an intern — to Elmore’s case.
“It was probably the best decision I ever made, and I’m sure Eddy Elmore would agree with that,” he said during a Google+ Hangout with CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield.
“The Justice of God may at times ordain that there are some crimes for which a man should die, but the Justice of man is altogether inadequate to determine who those people might be.” — Prof. John Blume, law
In 1982, Elmore, a mentally disabled African American man, was accused of sexual assault and murder of Dorothy Ely Edwards, a woman whose house he occasionally visited to wash windows and clean gutters, according to The New York Times.
The prosecutor said 53 hairs were gathered from Edward’s bed, where the assault supposedly took place, with most of them being Elmore’s pubic hairs, The New York Times reported.
But something seemed odd about the prosecutors’ evidence, according to The New York Times. Though the prosecutor had claimed there were 53 hairs, the actual count was 49, and there were only 42 left in the bag because seven were taken out for examination. The bag of hair was not sealed, which meant that the hairs could have been planted in the bag at any point.
Furthermore, two other pieces of evidence against Elmore disappeared: the hair that was found on the victim’s abdomen during autopsy and a fingerprint on the victim’s bathroom. State officials said they could not find them. After Elmore’s lawyers’ persistent search, the two items were found and then tested. Neither the hair nor the fingerprint belonged to Elmore, according to The Atlantic.
The investigators also seemed to have missed key pieces of evidence. Although investigators took almost 100 pictures at Edward’s house, they took no photos of the bed where they had claimed the sexual assault happened and they did not take the sheets from the bed for evidence because there were no visible stains present, according to The New York Times.
Still, Elmore was sentenced to death in three trials.
In a turn of events, the Fourth Circuit of Appeals ordered a new trial in 2011, and the judge ruled that there was “persuasive evidence that the agents were outright dishonest,” and there was “further evidence of police ineptitude and deceit,” according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
Elmore’s conviction was then overturned based on the prosecutorial misconduct. However, Elmore pled guilty in exchange for immediate release when prosecutors refused to dismiss the case, according to the Death Penalty Resource website.
Holt, Elmore’s defense lawyer, advised him to plead guilty, Blume said. Otherwise, he may have had to stay in jail for more than a year awaiting trial. Trials were no longer attractive for Elmore, Blume said, after three juries had already sentenced him to death.
Elmore’s case was a struggle, and Blume said he was “never convinced of the outcome until [they] won in the Fourth Circuit.” Blume said the case was his second most memorable case in his career. The most memorable one, he said, was Richard Charles Johnson’s, his former client who was executed, despite what he thought believed to be overwhelming evidence of innocence.
“I still have nightmares about his execution, which I witnessed, and I still wonder whether there was not more I could have done to save his life,” Blume said.
Blume said he hopes the episode on Elmore’s case will expose the flaws of the death penalty system in the U.S.
“Hopefully seeing how an innocent person can be sentenced to death and spend more than three decades in prison for a crime they did not commit will give some people pause,” he said.
Even though Blume said he opposes the death penalty, some students that take Blume’s class, Law 405: The Death Penalty in America, said they support it.
Gregory Braciak ’14 said he is in favor of the death penalty only in extreme cases, for “only the worst and vile crimes that indicate a depravity of mind and reckless abandon for human life.”
He said taking Blume’s class has changed his view on which criminals deserve capital punishment.
“I was more liberal in applying the death penalty prior to [taking the class], but as the semester draws on, my views on the criminals that should receive the death penalty have narrowed,” he said.
Julius Kairey ’15 said that while he believes in the death penalty of the “most heinous of crimes,” he is taking Blume’s class to learn more about procedures that can “limit arbitrariness and bias in the system.”
Sixty percent of Americans said they favored death penalty for a person convicted of murder, according to a Gallup poll from October.
Asked why he opposes the death penalty, Blume said, using an old Talmudic saying his mentor used to paraphrase: “The Justice of God may at times ordain that there are some crimes for which a man should die, but the Justice of man is altogether inadequate to determine who those people might be.”