“Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong” by Raymond Bonner
By Jonathan Yardley,
In January 1982, a white South Carolina widow named Dorothy Edwards — “seventy-six years old but could have passed for fifty-six, a petite five foot three, size 6,” not rich but certainly “well-off” — was found dead in the closet of her bedroom in Greenwood, a small town a little more than an hour’s drive west of Columbia, the state capital. The crime shocked the town, not merely because it happened but because it was exceptionally bloody. As a forensic pathologist testified in the murder trial that followed soon after, she had “thirty-three wounds on her chest, abdomen, and back,” 13 of her ribs had been broken, and “altogether, there were fifty-two wounds, most of them no more than a third of an inch deep.” Many of the wounds had been inflicted before Edwards’s death.
As subsequent events made all too plain, the police of Greenwood and the state agents brought in to assist them often displayed the competence of Keystone Kops and the racial sensitivity of the Ku Klux Klan, but they certainly moved with dispatch. Within hours of the discovery of the body, they arrested a black handyman named Edward Lee Elmore, a few days shy of his 33rd birthday. He had done occasional jobs for Edwards, and police claimed to have found his fingerprints in her house. He was known as “a steady, trustworthy handyman,” though his IQ “was measured at 61, which psychologists classify as within the range of ‘mild mental retardation.’” Many of his customers were well-to-do whites such as Edwards, and they liked him: “He was polite, deferential, sweet-natured — in a word, he was ‘servile,’ as blacks were supposed to be.”
He was also unlucky: not only unlucky to be black in a part of South Carolina that still revered the Confederacy and conducted public affairs accordingly; not only to be a resident of a state that “has been executing criminals as long as it has existed, as a colony and a state,” often with gusto; not only to have been the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time; not only to have been arrested in a town where law enforcement officials — police, state investigators and prosecutors alike — were far more interested in a speedy trial with a predictable outcome than in the unbiased administration of justice. As Raymond Bonner writes in this taut account of his trial and its long aftermath, the story is much more than at first it seems to be:
“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.”
The trial opened a mere 84 days after the victim’s body was found. The two lawyers assigned to defend Elmore were Geddes Dowling Anderson and John Beasley. The former was “as affable as they come, and in truth, he was pretty good in the courtroom — when he was sober.” As the trial progressed “Elmore smelled alcohol on Anderson’s breath every day, and his behavior in the courtroom reinforced the suspicion that he had been drinking when he should have been preparing.” As for Beasley, he “was an undistinguished criminal defense lawyer, known around town for boasting that he really didn’t care much for work.” He also didn’t much like black people, and once was heard referring to Elmore with a harsh racial epithet. The two lawyers “did virtually nothing. They consulted no independent experts, no pathologists, no fingerprint specialists. . . . They didn’t even read the police interviews with the witnesses, which the prosecution had turned over to them by law.” They simply were plowed under by William Townes Jones III, Greenwood’s “renowned, powerful and feared” prosecutor, who “had a ferocious temper and a reputation as a bit of a bully.” Rather than fight Jones, Anderson and Beasley “accepted the state’s case more than they challenged it,” even though the holes in that case were big enough to drive a locomotive through.
The case was “loaded with doubt,” not a scintilla of which Anderson or Beasley attempted to explore. There were doubts about fingerprints, about the charge of rape that prosecutors added to the murder charge and in particular about the role played by Jimmy Holloway, the neighbor who was so friendly with Edwards that he had a key to her house and “liked to slip over in the afternoon for a cocktail.” Some people “thought there was more to the relationship between Holloway and Dorothy Edwards than just being good neighbors.” It was Holloway who had led police to her body and who had given them an elaborate tour of the death scene. A decade later, when a lawyer named Diana Holt read Holloway’s testimony, she was “aghast, dumbfounded”:
“A writer of a cheapo crime novel wouldn’t have dared to invent the kind of things that took place. The police had let Holloway into the house to clean it less than twenty-four hours after the crime, before anyone had been arrested, before even an arrest warrant had been issued. That the policemen . . . had allowed the person who had found the body, and who therefore in Criminal Investigation 101 should have been a prime suspect, to roam through the house unescorted was beyond comprehension.”
Eventually Holt came to believe that Holloway might have killed Edwards in a fit of jealousy; he knew that she was planning to remarry and a “lovers’ quarrel ensued,” with fatal results. Since all parties to the encounter (if indeed it took place) are now dead, her suspicions cannot be proved — or disproved. Still, the role played by Holt in bringing at least a measure of justice to Elmore cannot be denied. A fierce opponent of the death penalty who works for the South Carolina Post-Conviction Community Defender Organization, she took Elmore under her wing after three trials — the first in 1982 and two subsequent retrials on appeal — had left him with a verdict of guilty and a sentence of death. Because “Anatomy of Injustice” has some of the elements of a (good) crime novel, it would be unfair to reveal what her labors led to: not as much as she had hoped for, but perhaps more than in the end she had thought possible.
Bonner, who reported on the Elmore case while working as a staff reporter for the New York Times, is a lawyer as well as a journalist and brings professional expertise to the book. He also brings passionate feelings about the proper roles of prosectors and defense attorneys. He came to admire a New Yorker named J. Christopher Jensen, a corporate lawyer “who felt a need to do something more meaningful than help rich people get richer” and helped defend many accused persons in South Carolina. “Jensen never asked himself whether Elmore was guilty or innocent,” Bonner writes. “It was not a question he had to address. For Jensen, like many criminal defense lawyers, in defending a criminal suspect he is defending the integrity of the judicial system and the Constitution, as well as the individual. By demanding that a guilty person have a fair trial, defense lawyers are ensuring that an innocent person will as well.”
As for prosecutors, “a bedrock principle of the American judicial system” is “the duty of the prosecution . . . not to obtain a conviction but to do justice.” Later Bonner writes: “If there is a flaw in the adversarial system of justice that has developed in America, it is that the adversarial nature of it outweighs justice. Prosecutors want to win in trial court. Appellate lawyers want to win on appeal. Justice often gets lost.” From the first prosecutor who went after Elmore to the last, every single one violated that basic rule. The next time you read about justice in America, think twice.
ANATOMY OF INJUSTICE A Murder Case Gone Wrong By Raymond Bonner Knopf. 298 pp. $26.95