A federal appeals court on Tuesday 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.
In a 2-1 ruling, a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond said defense attorneys' "blind acceptance of the state's forensic evidence" violated Edward Lee Elmore's constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.
"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.
Edwards, who had sporadically employed Elmore, was stabbed 52 times and found inside a bedroom closet at her home. She also had 11 broken ribs, head wounds and internal injuries.
Over the years, Elmore has had several appeals challenging his conviction and sentence. The U.S. 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.
Judge Robert King wrote in the appeals court's 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 in Elmore's latest appeal was a blond hair found on Edwards that did not match her or Elmore. That hair and others removed from the victim's body during the autopsy were falsely reported by police as being "blue fibers" and were concealed for nearly 17 years, the court said.
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.
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.
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.
"And in the course of its decision, the majority unjustly impugns the criminal justice system of South Carolina, slanders a deceased man who simply had the misfortune of discovering his neighbor's mutilated body, and grants habeas relief to a prisoner whom overwhelming evidence suggests brutally raped and murdered an elderly woman in her home," Wilkinson wrote.
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.