Death row lawyer: 'If I throw in the towel, a client dies'

Story highlights

  • Edward Lee Elmore was sentenced to death for a murder he says he didn't commit
  • Lawyers: Law enforcement planted evidence and manipulated facts to convict him
  • Federal appeals court blamed "extreme malfunctions" in the justice system
  • To win his freedom, Elmore pleaded guilty to murder while maintaining innocence

By the time Edward Lee Elmore won his freedom at age 53, he had spent 30 years -- most of them on death row -- imprisoned in South Carolina for a crime he says he did not commit.

Law enforcement planted evidence and prosecutors manipulated facts to cast Elmore as the only suspect in the 1982 murder of 75-year-old Dorothy Edwards, his lawyers claim.

Even with seemingly overwhelming evidence in Elmore's favor, it took nearly two decades to win his release, in what an appeals court called "one of those exceptional cases of 'extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems.' "

Read the U.S. Court of Appeals opinion on the case (PDF)

His experience raises nearly every issue that shapes America's capital punishment debate: DNA testing, mental retardation, a jailhouse snitch, incompetent defense lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct and "a strong claim of innocence," said author Raymond Bonner, who wrote about the case in "Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong."

    Just Watched

    'Are they gonna kill me?'

'Are they gonna kill me?' 00:39
PLAY VIDEO

    Just Watched

    CNN's "Death Row Stories" Promo

CNN's "Death Row Stories" Promo 00:30
PLAY VIDEO

    Just Watched

    Family wants justice after execution

Family wants justice after execution 01:38
PLAY VIDEO

    Just Watched

    Killer's family: Execution was 'torture'

Killer's family: Execution was 'torture' 04:49
PLAY VIDEO

    Just Watched

    Un-tested drugs used in executions

Un-tested drugs used in executions 02:16
PLAY VIDEO

In other words, a prime example of when "innocence is not enough," Bonner said.

Elmore would probably still be on death row if not for Diana Holt, who began investigating his claims of innocence in 1993. When Holt met Elmore, she was surprised that a convicted killer on death row could be "so docile and gentle."

    Two post-conviction review courts rejected Elmore's claims, though one noted that he "may well not be guilty." But Holt never considered giving up.

    "If I throw in the towel, a client dies. If I stop working, they stop breathing," Holt said. "Sometimes, I am the first person who ever stuck by them or treated them with respect."

    A bloody crime scene

    Elmore was arrested in January 1982 for the rape and murder of Edwards, a wealthy widow in Greenwood, South Carolina. Edwards' longtime neighbor and friend, Greenwood City Councilman Jimmy Holloway, told police he let himself into her house after noticing newspapers piling up in her driveway.

    Inside the house, he discovered her bloody corpse in a bedroom closet and alerted police. Holloway also identified Elmore, who had cleaned Edwards' windows and gutters the month before, as a possible suspect.

    Within 48 hours, police arrested Elmore based on a thumbprint found on Edwards' back door. By April, a Greenwood County jury had convicted Elmore of murder and sentenced him to death. It would be the first of three times he would stand trial in the case, followed by years of appeals and post-conviction reviews.

    When Holt took on the case, she says, she discovered a disturbing chain of events that led to Elmore's conviction, starting with law enforcement's willingness to build a case around Holloway's timeline. From there, Elmore's lawyers say, prosecutors suppressed blood and fingerprint evidence that could have cast doubt on their case. Instead, Elmore's lawyers claim that prosecutors deliberately introduced falsely incriminating statements from a jailhouse informant and hairs from Elmore that were not found at the crime scene.

    A breakthrough finally came in 2011, when the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reversed Elmore's conviction and ordered a new trial, based partly on findings that Elmore's trial lawyers blindly accepted the prosecution's case without bothering to examine the evidence in his first trial and retrial.

    "A healthy skepticism of authority, while generally advisable, is an absolute necessity for a lawyer representing a client charged with capital murder," a judge wrote in the majority opinion. "Elmore's lawyers disregarded their professional obligation to investigate critical prosecution evidence, thereby engendering 'a breakdown in the adversarial process that our system counts on to produce just results.' "

    'Couldn't believe my eyes'

    None of it would have come to light if not for Holt. She was in her mid-30s when she joined the case the summer before her third year of law school. Her journey to law school had been hard-fought, with a history of abusive relationships and a stint as a teen serving time in a Louisiana prison for armed robbery.

    At 28, she began taking community college classes and earned the grades to enter Southwest Texas State University. Given her past, Holt was pleasantly surprised when the University of Texas accepted her law school application in 1991.

    Her professors nudged her in the direction of death penalty litigation when she began to show a knack for the persistent digging the job demands. Through internships at the Texas Resource Center, Holt met lawyer John Blume, executive director of the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. During an internship there, Blume asked her to help with Elmore's case by interviewing jurors.

    "I started reading the trial testimony and couldn't believe my eyes," Holt said. "All the forensic evidence evaporated under the smallest measure of scrutiny."

    She became immersed in the case, "all Elmore, all the time," and "classes became more like an annoying distraction," she said. Blume offered her a job as a staff attorney once she graduated, but she couldn't wait and moved to South Carolina before the final spring semester, for "Elmore and John Blume," she said, half-joking.

    A few things about the case jumped out at her.

    For one, police said they had seized pubic hairs from Edwards' bed and identified them as belonging to Elmore.

    If that was true, Holt wondered, where were crime scene photos of those hairs on the bed? Why weren't they packaged like other evidence taken from the scene? Why didn't investigators collect the bedsheets for further analysis? Elmore conceded that hairs introduced into trial evidence belonged to him but claimed that police pulled them from his head and groin area after his arrest.

    Meanwhile, fibers and hairs collected from Edwards' body and marked "item T" on an evidence log were never introduced into evidence. For years, the state claimed they were missing, until 1998, when they were found in the private office of an investigator in the case. Testing revealed a "Caucasian pubic hair inconsistent with Mrs. Edwards" that Elmore's team claims could have cast doubt on the state's theory that he was the only possible killer.

    Holloway's "farcical" trial testimony also led Holt to question his portrayal by prosecutors as a shocked neighbor and longtime friend. When Holt interviewed Holloway in 1993, within five minutes, she said, he told her, "I am the only one who could kill her and get away with it, the way she trusted me so."

    Holloway died in 1994.

    And yet, when Elmore walked out of prison in 2012, he was not fully exonerated.

    Elmore agreed to a deal with prosecutors that allowed him to maintain his innocence while pleading guilty. In exchange for pleading guilty to murder, the state dropped a burglary charge and agreed to a 30-year sentence with credit for time served.

    "All the forensic evidence evaporated under the smallest measure of scrutiny," Elmore's attorney Diana Holt told CNN.

    In the 2012 hearing, prosecutor Jerry Peace said that the state still believed it had a strong case against Elmore but that the victim's daughter supported the plea as a means of ending the case.

    Read more about the plea deal (PDF)

    Holt, however, told the court that his defense team believed Elmore is "100% innocent" but also sought to end the case. He could have gone to trial, but she has seen other clients wait years for a retrial. She also would have preferred an all-out acquittal, but "immediate freedom stymied ongoing justice," she said.

    "That the justice system provided an avenue for an immediate release to freedom for Mr. Elmore that was previously not available to him is more justice than injustice," she said. "Justice was better served with his freedom."

    If you were in Elmore's shoes, would you plead guilty to a crime you did not commit, in order to get out of prison? Share your thoughts in the comments.

        Death Row Stories

      • There are 61 women on death row across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, making up only 2% of the 3,125 inmates on death row across the country.  Take a look at all the women sentenced to death in the United States.  Source: Death Penalty Information Center

        As manufacturers cut off supplies of lethal injection drugs, states look for new drug combinations for executions.
      • 371489 07: The Texas death chamber in Huntsville, TX, June 23, 2000 where Texas death row inmate Gary Graham was put to death by lethal injection on June 22, 2000. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

        An infographic illustrates America's record on executions by race, state, year and method since the death penalty was reinstated more than 30 years ago.
      • orig jag death penalty stats_00002728.jpg

        More than 14,000 people have been executed under U.S. law. About 3,000 more are slated for execution on death rows across the nation.
      • new dnt botched execution brown_00000904.jpg

        Clayton Lockett's botched lethal injection and deadly heart attack raises disturbing questions about how the U.S. executes death row prisoners.
      • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 3_00004910.jpg

        After John Thompson survived 14 years on death row he had to figure out how to return to the world.
      • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 2_00001417.jpg

        Death row inmate John Thompson describes his reaction after Louisiana set his official execution date.
      • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 1_00002307.jpg

        A first-time meeting between death row inmate John Thompson and his appellate lawyers yields mutual skepticism.
      • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 3_00005522.jpg

        Death row inmate John Thompson confronts a proposed shift in legal strategy aimed at saving his life.
      • Longtime Miami-area homicide detective Marshall Frank has met some really bad people. He reveals three steps to coax killers to confess their crimes.
      • Why wasn't a key piece of evidence shown to jurors? Can a simple notebook prove a man's innocence?
      • orig death row stories ep 4 clip 1 picture was innocent_00004427.jpg

        A retired homicide detective examines the strange case of an ex-cop sentenced to death row for the murder of an 11-year-old girl.
      • Joe D'Ambrosio, like many inmates, claimed he was innocent. As he learned, claiming it is one thing. Proving it is another.
      • orig death row stories ep3 p2_00003605.jpg

        Although his conviction was overturned, prosecutors tried to keep an ex-death row inmate locked up before his new trial.
      • When police questioned an unwitting Gloria Killian after a brutal murder, she used a poor choice of words.
      • Well into her 32-years-to-life murder sentence, Gloria Killian met a friend on the outside who was willing to listen.
      • Prison lifer Gloria Killian's defense team finds a previously unknown letter that may help win her freedom.
      • Edward Lee Elmore, 53, smiles after his hearing on Friday, March 2, 2012 in Greenwood, S.C. Elmore, who spent 30 years in prison for murdering Dorothy Edwards, a crime that Elmore said he did not commit, was set free by Judge Frank Addy on Friday. (AP Photo/The Index-Journal, Matt Walsh)

        Legal intern Diana Holt refused to believe that death row inmate Edward Lee Elmore was a killer. So began the fight of their lives.
      • orig death row stories 3_00003213.jpg

        Three weeks before his execution date, Edward Lee Elmore asked his attorney a heartbreaking question. Watch her tearful response.
      • orig death row stories 1 _00004604.jpg

        A law student was sent to meet a death row inmate accused of a horrible murder. Their meeting triggered the beginning of an amazing story.
      • Somalia convicted murderer Adan Sheikh Abdi is tied to a post before being executed on August 17, 2013 by a firing squad in a Mogadishu square for the September 2012 killing of well-known journalist Hassan Yusuf Absuge. Adan Sheikh Abdi was tried by a military tribunal as a 'combatant' for belonging to Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgency. He was sentenced to death in March and his subsequent appeal was rejected. AFP PHOTO / Mohamed Abdiwahab (Photo credit should read Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images)

        Virtual "killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq led to a spike in the number of executions globally last year, according to Amnesty International.
      • Death row inmates deal with demons in different ways. William Van Poyck chose to write.