Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

4th Circuit reverses 1982 murder conviction

RICHMOND, Va. — The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the conviction of a South Carolina man who has spent most of the last 29 years on death row, ruling his trial attorneys failed to challenge forensic evidence that could have exonerated him in the slaying of a 75-year-old widow.

Tuesday’s 2-1 decision said defense attorneys’ “blind acceptance of the state’s forensic evidence” violated Edward Lee Elmore’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.

Defense attorneys also failed to capitalize on an expert’s finding that Edwards likely died at a time when Elmore could prove he was elsewhere, the court said.

“Needless to say, we are very gratified that the court of appeals has reached what we think is the right result,” said Elmore’s appellate attorney, J. Christopher Jensen. “We’ve been saying for years that Mr. Elmore did not have a fair trial, and the court agreed.”

The South Carolina attorney general’s office was reviewing the ruling and weighing its options, spokesman Bryan Stirling said. The attorney general could ask the full appeals court to reconsider the case or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Elmore, described by the appeals court as a mentally retarded handyman, was convicted in 1982 of the murder of Dorothy Edwards of Greenwood, who was stabbed 52 times and found inside her bedroom closet.

Judge Robert King wrote in the appeals court’s 163-page majority opinion that, after reviewing the record of Elmore’s three trials and many appeals, “we recognize that there are grave questions about whether it really was Elmore who murdered Mrs. Edwards.”

A major issue was a blond hair found on Edwards that did not match her or Elmore. That hair and others removed during the autopsy were falsely reported by police as being “blue fibers” and concealed for nearly 17 years, the court said.

In a scathing dissent, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said the majority failed to give the lower court rulings the deference they are due under federal law and Supreme Court precedent.

Over the years, Elmore has had several appeals challenging his conviction and sentence. The Supreme Court set aside his death sentence in 1986, but he was convicted and resentenced to death in two subsequent trials. In 2010, a judge ruled Elmore mentally unfit to be executed and another judge sentenced him to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The record in Elmore’s case was so voluminous and complicated that it took the appeals court 14 months after hearing oral arguments to decide the case.

In 2001, a judge denied Elmore’s lawyers’ request to exhume the body of another man they said could have killed Edwards. Attorneys wanted to see if DNA from that man’s body matched the blond hair.

The appeals court also said investigators failed to follow standard procedures in collecting an unusually large number of Elmore’s hairs from the victim’s bed. They did not take photos, collect bedcovers or sheets for further forensic analysis or package the hairs like other evidence taken from the crime scene.