RICHMOND, Va. — A South Carolina man who spent 28 years on death row before getting his sentence changed to life in prison now hopes a single strand of blond hair will help him win freedom.
The hair strand was the focus of arguments Wednesday as a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the murder conviction of Edward Lee Elmore, who had been on South Carolina’s death row longer than anyone else before a judge ruled in February that he was mentally disabled and ineligible for the death penalty.
Attorneys for Elmore, 51, claim authorities concealed the crime-scene hair strand, which did not match the victim or Elmore, by labeling it carpet fiber. Elmore’s attorneys are seeking to have his conviction vacated.
“There’s no doubt now that law enforcement officers testified falsely or gave false information to the defense,” Elmore’s attorney, J. Christopher Jensen, told the appeals court.
Assistant Deputy Attorney General Donald J. Zelenka said the mislabeling was a simple mistake. That was the same conclusion reached by a circuit judge who ruled that the hair strand was not enough to warrant a new trial.
Elmore was sentenced to death in 1982 for the stabbing and beating death of 72-year-old Dorothy Edwards of Greenwood. The U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for mentally disabled offenders in 2002, and subsequent IQ tests showed Elmore was mentally unfit for execution.
State prosecutors did not object to resentencing Elmore to life in prison but they insist his conviction should stand. Zelenka said the hair at issue in the appeal should be viewed in the context of all the evidence, including some four dozen pubic hairs that matched Elmore’s DNA and the defendant’s incriminating statements to a jailhouse informant.
Appeals court Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said lower courts reviewed all the evidence and found the single mislabeled hair immaterial — a decision that must stand unless it is proven to be “an unreasonable application of clearly established law.”
Judge Roger Gregory, however, was troubled by the fact that police took no crime-scene photographs of the hairs — which Elmore claims were planted by authorities — and that the jury that convicted him did not know that the incriminating statements were being made by a mentally disabled defendant.
“In this case, there’s just a constellation of problems,” Gregory said.
Zelenka said Elmore’s mental impairment did not affect his ability to assist in his defense.
Elmore is eligible for parole immediately because South Carolina did not adopt life without parole as an option until 1995. When he was convicted, inmates had to serve 20 years of a life term before becoming eligible for parole.
A parole hearing for Elmore is scheduled for Oct. 20.