COLUMBIA — A mentally disabled man who spent nearly 30 years on South Carolina’s death row could soon be leaving prison because of a single strand of hair.
The hair does not exonerate Edward Lee Elmore, a handyman, in the stabbing death of a widow he worked for, but it has raised enough doubt to win him a new trial — and a bail hearing Friday. The chance to leave prison after three decades comes after numerous appeals and his sentence being overturned three times.
In 1982, Elmore was convicted of killing Dorothy Edwards. Her body was found in a closet in her home, stabbed 52 times. She had numerous broken ribs, head wounds and internal injuries.
At the bond hearing, Elmore faces murder and sexual assault charges.
Raymond Bonner, a former New York Times reporter, has followed the case for more than a decade and recently wrote a book about it. He said police were anxious to make an arrest to allay a community’s fears that a rapist and murderer was among them, and authorities hastily arrested Elmore. Bonner said prosecutors never established a motive.
“There aren’t a lot of people on death row who are factually innocent,” Bonner said. “Edward Lee Elmore is factually innocent. He did not commit that crime. ... He was framed.”
Elmore was convicted in a brief trial in Greenwood, a former textile town of about 23,000 people in the northwest part of the state. As with most death row cases, his appeals made their way through a variety of courts.
As other death row inmates were exonerated because of new DNA testing technology, Elmore’s attorneys asked a judge in 2000 to overturn his convictions because a blond hair found on Edwards after her death did not match her or Elmore.
Elmore’s lawyers thought the blond hair may have belonged to Edwards’ next-door neighbor and they asked a judge to exhume the man’s body to test his DNA, but a judge denied the request.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Elmore began to see his fate turn around. A South Carolina judge ruled he was mentally unfit and could not be executed, per a 2002 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
State prosecutors didn’t oppose a judge’s decision to sentence him to life in prison, and Elmore was, after 28 years, moved from the state’s death row to another maximum-security prison.
In September 2010, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., heard arguments about the blond hair.
Elmore’s attorneys said authorities concealed the strand by labeling it as a carpet fiber. Prosecutors argued the strand should be considered along with other evidence, including some four dozen pubic hairs that matched Elmore’s DNA, as well as the defendant’s incriminating statements to a jailhouse informant.
The judges overturned his conviction in November. After considering the case for more than a year, the court ruled investigators failed to follow standard procedures in collecting hairs from Edwards’ bed, neglecting to 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 January, the U.S. Supreme Court denied South Carolina prosecutors’ request to delay Elmore’s fourth trial. Friday’s bond hearing is among the first steps of that process.
It’s not clear what will happen at the hearing. Prosecutors could decide not to pursue their case, and Elmore would go free. Or the judge could set bail or decide against it and keep Elmore behind bars until another trial is held.
Local Solicitor Jerry Peace says Elmore is being brought up on charges of murder and sexual assault, but neither he nor Elmore’s defense attorneys wished to comment before Friday’s hearing. Previously, Elmore’s lawyer has said her client’s five siblings, who have stuck by him ever since his arrest, are ready to welcome him home but noted that her client was nervous about life outside prison, given how much time he’s spent on death row, where inmates are mostly alone.
“He’s still extremely apprehensive,” Diana Holt said after a judge ruled Elmore would leave death row. “He wants to know when he might be moved so he can brace himself for it.”