Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong

Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong

Author: Raymond Bonner
New York: Knopf, 2012. 320p.
Reviewer: Abbe Smith | September 2012

On a cold weekend in January 1982, a 76-year-old widow named Dorothy Edwards was found dead in her bedroom closet in Greenwood, South Carolina, a small town about an hour west of Columbia. Five foot three and slender, Edwards looked younger than her age. She had plans to marry a man with whom she’d been keeping company. The crime was brutal and bloody: her assailant stabbed her 33 times in the chest, abdomen, and back and beat her with a blunt object, breaking 13 of her ribs. She may also have been sexually assaulted.

She was white and affluent. The man who would subsequently be charged with her murder was a black, barely literate 33-year-old handyman named Edward Lee Elmore, who sometimes did work for her.

How Elmore came to be arrested and prosecuted for capital murder—and the fight to save his life—is at the heart of Raymond Bonner’s Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong (Knopf, 2012). The case is a vivid reminder of just how flawed our criminal justice system is as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the case that held out promise that a poor black man like Elmore might get the same access to justice as a wealthy white person. The case features racism, police misconduct, prosecutorial arrogance and recalcitrance, defense lawyer incompetence, and judicial bias and cowardice. It sometimes feels like a story out of the Jim Crow South. That it happened only 30 years ago is stunning.

As Bonner writes:
In many ways, Elmore’s is a garden-variety death penalty case: a young black male of limited intelligence convicted of murdering a white person after a trial in which his lawyers’ performance was so poor that it could barely be called a defense. But the case is also exceptional, and not just because it involved “sex, violence, and racism,” as one of Mrs. Edwards’s neighbors put it, convinced that this was the only reason reporters were interested. Elmore’s story raises nearly all the issues that mark the debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, bad trial lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct, ‘snitch’ testimony, DNA testing, a claim of innocence. (xiv)

One of the problems with Elmore’s case was the speed with which he was tried—a jury was empaneled less than three months after the decedent’s body was found. The two lawyers assigned to defend Elmore—an advance over the previous practice of appointing a single capital defender—did nothing to slow things down. As David Bazelon once wrote, “The Sixth Amendment demands more than placing a warm body with a legal degree next to an indigent defendant.” David Bazelon, The Realities of Gideon and Argersinger, 64 Geo. L. J. 811, 819 (1976). But these lawyers were little more than that: they were a “walking violation of the Sixth Amendment.” See Vanessa Merton, What Do You Do When You Meet a “Walking Violation of the Sixth Amendment” if You’re Trying to Put That Lawyer’s Client in Jail?,69 Fordham L. Rev. 997 (2000). One was an affable drunk, the other reluctant and weak. They did “virtually nothing” (p. 49): talked to no witnesses, consulted no experts, and didn’t even read the witness statements turned over to them by the state. They were apparently intimidated by Greenwood’s “renowned, powerful, and feared” (p.40) prosecutor, William Townes Jones III. Rather than fight for Elmore—who had no felony record and maintained innocence—his own lawyers seemed to accept the state’s case, oblivious to the enormous holes in it. 

The biggest blunder was the lawyers’ failure to explore the role played by a neighbor named Jimmy Holloway, who had access to the decedent’s home and may have been having an affair with her. Holloway supposedly discovered the body, and was allowed to clean the house less than 24 hours after the crime, before anyone was arrested.

But the defense lawyers were not the only ones to blame for a case that calls out “wrongful conviction.” That Elmore was tried three times made no difference: the trials were largely the same and led to the same result: a conviction and death sentence. (Legendary capital defense lawyer David Bruck was behind two successful appeals.) The police hid and probably planted evidence. The prosecution relied on an improbable theory, supported by bungling and corrupt police officers, questionable forensic evidence, and a jailhouse snitch no ethical prosecutor would ever have allowed on the witness stand. Trial judges allowed the state to strike nearly every prospective black juror, and excused anyone with any qualms whatsoever about the death penalty.

After the third trial, in walks a relatively young lawyer named Diana Holt, with an unpleasant life story of her own—a difficult childhood marked by abuse and neglect, a serious brush with the law in her late teens that landed her in prison, and several ill-fated marriages. She went to law school because she saw injustice in prison and wanted to do something about it. She was smart enough to get into the University of Texas Law School and fortunate to work with some prominent and encouraging mentors, including some of the best capital defenders in the country. She met Elmore when she took a job with the South Carolina Post-Conviction Community Defender Organization (which no longer exists).

Holt comes to believe that Holloway killed the decedent, not Elmore. With help from some excellent lawyers—her colleagues at the Community Defender and pro bono counsel from a New York firm–Holt tries everything she can think of to overturn Elmore’s conviction.

Raymond Bonner, the author of Anatomy of Injustice, is a lawyer—a former prosecutor and defense lawyer—as well as a journalist. He is especially effective when he talks about the ethics of prosecutors and defenders: that the role of the prosecutor is to do justice, while that of the defense lawyer is to zealously advocate for his or her clients. He also does a methodical, accessible job of recounting the investigation, trials, and state and federal appeals.
We learn a lot about Holt—probably too much. Do we need to know that she wears Ralph Lauren jeans (p.253), or she was sometimes so nervous in court she “felt like she was going to wet her pants” (p.165), or what grades she got in third grade (p.115)?

Meanwhile we get little sense of Elmore. This can be a challenge in these kinds of stories: the lawyer is more vivid than the client. Elmore seems earnest, long-suffering, and innocent—and maybe not the best boyfriend (pp. 22-23). He is also cognitively impaired—ultimately, he is diagnosed as mildly mentally retarded (p.275). He cannot tell time or draw a clock, doesn’t understand the concept of directions (north, south, east, west) or seasons, and never lived on his own as he didn’t know how to pay bills (p.22). He was easy pickings on cross-examination (pp. 73-77).

It’s a harrowing tale, and an important one. But I couldn’t help wishing there was more literary force to the book. It sometimes felt like reading a transcript.

It’s easy to understand why Elmore’s case might have become an obsession to Holt. There are many tragic figures in the criminal justice system—those who, innocent or guilty, barely had their “day in court” and have now vanished into the prison system. But Elmore is Holt’s tragic figure. She has seen what happened to him up close. The more she investigated his case, the more injustice she uncovered.

There is no question that Holt is a hero: after she got Elmore off death row (she challenged his death sentence under Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002), the US Supreme Court case that held that executing the mentally retarded is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment), she continued to fight for his freedom and finally won it. This past November, a federal appeals court agreed with Holt that his original lawyers’ mishandling of crucial forensic evidence required another trial. When the prosecutor offered a deal—a guilty plea in exchange for freedom—Elmore took it. He did so because he had been in prison more than 30 years. He continues to insist he had nothing to do with Edwards’s death.

Some will be skeptical. In the end, no one can prove—not Holt or Bonner—that the police planted blood on Elmore’s pants and shoes, or planted his pubic hair at the crime scene. No one can prove that Holloway, not Elmore, committed the murder, though plenty of people, including former jurors and members of the police force, came to believe that Holloway probably killed Edwards in a jealous rage. (Holloway died some years ago. His son strongly denies his father’s guilt.)

Still the book is an important reminder of just how frightening it can be to be caught up in the criminal justice system, how little evidence it takes, and how random and elusive justice can be.

Abbe Smith is Professor of Law, Director of the Criminal Defense & Prisoner Advocacy Clinic, and Co-Director of the E. Barrett Prettyman Fellowship Program, at Georgetown University Law Center.

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