I have explored the topic of the death penalty previously, most extensively in this post:

In that I traced my own opposition to capital punishment back more than fifty years to when I was in junior high school. I debunked some myths about the death penalty, one of the most popular being that executing a convicted prisoner saves money over keeping him in prison for life.

Another myth is that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to others.

But one of the most important reasons to oppose the death penalty is that fact that, though relatively rare, innocent people are sent to death row.

With the development and improvement of DNA testing there have been a number of cases in recent years where convictions of death row inmates have been overturned due to DNA evidence proving the convicts innocent.

The gravest travesty that can befall an accused criminal is to be convicted of a crime he did not commit and be executed for it. There are some documented cases where this has occurred.

Today I read about one convict, Edward Lee Elmore, who was convicted of a rape and murder that took place in South Carolina in 1982, Dorothy Edwards, a 76 year old well-to-do widow, was found stuffed in a closet in her own home. Several different types of blunt and not so blunt instruments were used that eventually killed her, she having bled to death. Elmore, in turn, was sentenced to death.

Mrs. Edwards inarguably deserves justice, the arrest and conviction of the person who did this unforgiveable act. The question remains, however, whether Elmore is that person.

The investigation by the police had some irregularities. The chain of custody for some evidence cannot be firmly established, a vital element for credibility purposes. There was no scientific basis for setting the time of death, a crucial element to check against any alibis offered as exculpatory.

But some of the problems with the prosecution lay in the nature of the defendant himself. He was 23 at the time and worked only as a general handyman. He was-and is- likely mentally retarded and could read and write negligbly if at all. Oh, and he was a young black man charged with raping and brutally murdering a white woman in South Carolina.

Some may say that is a straw man argument designed to shine a better light on Elmore and show prejudice was behind his prosecution. But consider this, he had two court-appointed attorneys, both local veteran practioners. One repeatedly referred to his own client as that “red-headed nigger”. The other was a chronic drunk who reeked of alcohol during much of the tiral.

Those lawyers failed to cross-examine key prosecution witnesses and offered the defendant’s testimony as the only testimony they put on.

This article will provide more background of the case culled from a book about it, the title of which appears in the URL.

The legal proceedings in the case have a long, tortured history, with the latest ruling handed down last November by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Having scrutinized volumes of records of Elmore’s three trials and his state PCR proceedings, we recognize that there are grave questions about whether it really was Elmore who murdered Mrs. Edwards. And we are constrained to conclude – notwithstanding the demanding strictures of § 2254(d) – that Elmore is entitled to habeas corpus relief on his Sixth Amendment claim of ineffective assistance of counsel premised on his trial lawyers’ blind acceptance of the State’s forensic evidence. All told, Elmore’s is one of those exceptional cases of “‘extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems'” where § 2254 may appropriately be used to remedy injustice. Harrington v. Richter, 131 S. Ct. 770, 786 (2011) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332 n.5 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring in the judgment)). Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s judgment denying relief and remand for the court to award Elmore a writ of habeas corpus unless the State of South Carolina endeavors to prosecute him in a new trial within a reasonable time.

Basically that decision means Elmore’s conviction is overturned and, unless South Carolina chooses to try him again, he will be a free man. (His death penalty was overturned in 2010 due to his mental retardation. I have been unable to find further news since the November ruling as to the state’s intentions.)

This decision does not mean that Elmore is not guilty, only that a proper defense for him was not done. If you read the court’s opinion, note the dissenting judge believes there was sufficient evidence, and that comes at the end.

But ponder for a moment the possibility that if more competent attorneys had not stepped in to make the necessary arguments and if Elmore had languished in jail with no relief in sight, South Carolina could have proceeded with his execution on whatever timetable they normally use. Be assured the state is not afraid to carry out these sentences, having executed 45 prisoners since 1985, 20 since 2002.

And if he were innocent, then the injustice committed is too horrifying to contemplate and causes me to shudder in revulsion.

A system that commits an injustice by killing an innocent man is a system that has failed to commit justice even when executing the guilty.

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