After spending 31 years — 29 of them on death row — incarcerated for murder, Edward Elmore was freed on March 3, in large part due to investigations undertaken by Cornell law students and professors on the Cornell Death Penalty Project Council.
The council –– which is directed by Prof. John H. Blume, law –– is comprised of a few Cornell law students who are selected to work on cases alongside Blume and other attorneys.
Elmore, now 54 years old, was convicted in 1982 for the murder of Dorothy Edwards. At the time, Edwards had hired Elmore to perform small tasks such as window-washing, gutter-fixing and cleaning.
Attorney Diana Holt, Blume’s co-council on several hearings of the case, said Jimmy Holloway –– Edwards’ neighbor and a possible suspect in the case –– discovered Edwards dead in a closet in her South Carolina home. She had been stabbed more than 50 times and sexually assaulted before she bled to death.
When Elmore was on death row, Cornell students and professors on the council helped prove that he was mentally retarded. Because the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 in Atkins v. Virginia that it is not legal to execute the mentally retarded, Elmore — who was shown, years after his conviction, to have an IQ ranging between 60 and 70 — was taken off of death row.
Blume and Holt said that the students faced complications in their investigation, which took them as far away as Elmore’s rural hometown of Abbeville, South Carolina.
Blume said that because of Elmore’s age — Elmore had not attended school in more than 35 years by the time students began working on the case — students had trouble locating Elmore’s school records and contacting his former teachers to testify about his mental disability.
Further complicating their efforts, Blume and Holt said, was that Elmore, an African American, may not have received a fair trial because of racial discrimination.
“[The] lawyers had their own racial biases — one of [the lawyers] referred to [Elmore] derogatorily as a ‘red-headed nigger,’” Blume said.
That discrimination may have contributed to the fact that crucial evidence in the case was obstructed for years, according to Holt.
In 1998, lawyers discovered that one of the forensic scientists for the state had hidden a critical piece of evidence in his filing cabinet drawer: three hairs that were found on Edwards’ naked abdomen, according to Holt.
A state forensic scientist had reported that the evidence was blue fiber, but it was several strands of hair, none of which belonged to an African-American.
Although with Elmore’s release, it remains unclear who committed the murder, Holt said that she was highly suspicious of Holloway, Edwards’ neighbor.
“Everything pointed to this guy,” Holt said.
Because Holloway died in 1994, however, lawyers never had the chance to prove that their suspicions were correct, she said.
The evidence lawyers and Cornell students helped produce led to Elmore’s death sentence being overturned and his subsequent entitlement to a new trial. Prosecutors told Elmore’s lawyers that if Elmore gave an “Alford plea” — admitting one could be convicted with the evidence — they would release Elmore within the week.
After some resistance, Elmore accepted the plea and was set free that same day, according to Blume.
Although Elmore’s mental retardation hampered his ability to understand every complexity of the case, Blume and Holt said that above all, Elmore understood the moment that he received his freedom.
“What he did understand with 100 percent clarity was when I told him that he was leaving death row and that he was never going back,” Holt said, adding that Elmore was nothing but “sweet, gentle and kind.”
In fact, Elmore was so beloved by his clientele in Abbeville that several women testified at the “penalty phase” of the trial, saying that they used to trust Elmore with their children and homes, Holt said.
Now, Holt said, Elmore is living in Abbeville with his sister and family.
“He’s wrapped in a cocoon of love,” Holt said.
One student who had heard of the case, LouLou Fitzelle ’15, said that “it’s cases like these, the rare and remarkable ones, that make all the toil and time spent seem worth it.”
Similarly, Blume said the case was “a testament to the power of persistence and to the importance of teamwork.”
Both attorneys said that the case’s rarity — having Elmore freed after over three decades in prison for a crime that he did not commit — most affected them.
“At the end of the day, this was the case of a lifetime,” Holt said.