GREENWOOD, S.C. — Edward Lee Elmore glanced at the ceiling when a judge asked him whether he was sure he wanted to plead guilty to the murder he has spent decades denying. He whispered to his lawyer, who had told him “freedom is justice,” then looked toward the heavens again.
“Yes, sir,” he said quietly. With those words, he ended a 30-year stint in prison that saw 30 of his friends on death row die.
Elmore, 53, was convicted three times of killing Dorothy Edwards, with appeal courts overturning each verdict. Elmore lived nearby and did odd jobs for the 75-year-old widow, who was found in the closet of her Greenwood home in January 1982.
She had been savagely beaten and stabbed more than 50 times, dying from a loss of blood and blows that caved in her chest, prosecutor Jerry Peace said.
Prosecutors agreed that his punishment should be the 11,000 days Elmore spent behind bars, much of it on death row. He got off death row in 2010 when his attorneys argued he was mentally disabled and had a low IQ. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled states can’t execute the mentally disabled, and his punishment was reduced to life in prison.
On Friday, prosecutors dropped rape and burglary charges, and an hour after the hearing, Elmore walked out of the Greenwood County courthouse a free man.
Peace said he still thinks Elmore killed Edwards. He said Elmore confessed, telling investigators he may have blacked out as he attacked her. Small spots of the victim’s blood were found on Elmore’s jeans, Peace said, but he decided to make the deal for two reasons.
First, Edwards’ sister asked him to end three decades of uncertainty and phone calls from reporters and other people she doesn’t want to talk to.
Second, even if he was convicted and sentenced to life again, Elmore would have been immediately eligible for a parole hearing, Peace said. And with a spotless prison record, his chances could be good.
Elmore’s lawyers first asked the judge to throw out the charges. Defense lawyer Diana Holt has pointed out before that investigators found evidence at the crime scene that indicated Edwards fought for her life, but Elmore was uninjured when he was arrested hours later. A single blond hair was found on Edwards’ body. Elmore has black hair, and none of that was found at the scene.
In the courtroom was former New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner, who 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 the little evidence that links Elmore to the crime was planted.
“Don’t dare call it justice,” he said after the hearing. “A man served 30 years for a crime he did not commit.”
Elmore’s lawyer wanted to see him exonerated. But she told him he could be convicted again in a trial and taking an Alford plea, where he maintains his innocence but admits there is a lot of evidence against him, was the best thing he could do.
When Holt reminded reporters Elmore saw at least 30 fellow inmates executed during his 28 years on death row, he dropped his head.
“Great guys in there, some of them,” he said.
When a reporter asked if he had anything to say to Edwards’ family, Holt said they would respect the family’s wishes to not talk about the case. “It was 30 years for them too,” she said.