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.”