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Murder he wrote

February 17, 2012, 3:00 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, assistant managing editor Nicholas Varchaver reviews Raymond Bonner’s Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong.

It took just two days after the discovery of Dorothy Edwards’ body, in January 1982, before Edward Lee Elmore was arrested for her murder. Today, 30 years later, the justice system still has not reached a final resolution in the case.

The tension between the police sprint to judgment and the glacial movement of the courts is a central focus of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong, by Raymond Bonner, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written for the New York Times and the New Yorker. A one-time fraud prosecutor who also worked for Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, Bonner has had a long and distinguished career marked by concern for social justice. He has superb credentials to tell this story, which proves to be a depressingly revealing look at how police and courts, in particular, grapple with death penalty cases.

The case in question began with a gruesome crime: A 76-year-old white widow stabbed 52 times and left, wearing only a blood-soaked bathrobe, in the bedroom closet of her home in Greenwood, S.C. (Forensic evidence suggested she may have been violated after her death.) The white neighbor who found the body — a rumored lover of the victim who years later would come under suspicion himself — quickly pointed police to Elmore, a black 23-year-old handyman with an I.Q. of 61 who had cleaned the victim’s gutters and windows and whose fingerprint was found near a door to the house. Within three months of the crime, Elmore was convicted of murder, criminal sexual conduct, and burglary, and sentenced to death.

Spoiler alert: It’s hard to discuss this book without outlining the key events in it. Given that Bonner has bluntly titled the book Anatomy of Injustice, readers will likely intuit where the narrative is headed. This is a book whose value rests on its details and insights, not on a heart-warming Hollywood conclusion. But if you don’t want to find out what transpires, I recommend you stop reading here.

The crime and first trial occupy the opening third of the book. It’s clear that Elmore’s defense was hampered by an extreme version of the deficiencies that commonly afflict indigent defendants in death-penalty cases. First there was the performance of Elmore’s two court-appointed lawyers, who, as the book puts it, “consulted no independent experts, no pathologists, no fingerprint specialists. They didn’t search for witnesses; didn’t talk to any of Mrs. Edwards’s neighbors; didn’t interview Mr. Holloway [the neighbor who found the body]. They didn’t even read the police interviews with the witnesses, which the prosecution had turned over to them as required by law … [They] stipulated to the admissibility into evidence of everything Jones wanted to introduce — hair, fingerprints, Elmore’s blue jeans and coat — 98 items altogether.”

Not only did Elmore’s lawyers not attack the prosecution’s evidence, they went so far as to praise the police officers to the jury. The defense lawyers’ failure to challenge what would later turn out to be questionable evidence would haunt Elmore’s case, not just at trial but through decades of appeals.

That wasn’t all. According to a police official quoted in the book, one of Elmore’s defenders “was drunk throughout the trial.” (The lawyer denied it but acknowledged heavy drinking at points in his life.) Perhaps even more disturbing is what this same lawyer apparently told the author about his own former client: “In my judgment the son of a bitch did it … I was convinced of that at the time, and I still am.”

Elmore had to contend with more than incompetent lawyers. There was a jailhouse informant who testified that Elmore had confessed to the murder. (Years later, the informant admitted making up the story and testified that a jail official had told him, “You help me out on the Elmore thing, and we’ll look out for you.”) Then there were the officers from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division who “lost” an important piece of evidence for 17 years and didn’t try to match fingerprints to anybody other than Elmore. One day after the body was found, the officers even gave Edwards’s house key to the neighbor who found her — again, a person who would later come under suspicion for the crime — after which he hired cleaners to remove blood and fingerprinting dust from the house.

Police behavior was also at issue when it came to a crucial piece of evidence: the alleged presence of Elmore’s pubic hair at the crime scene. Given that no semen had been found, the presence of his pubic hair was critical to proving he had sexually assaulted the victim. But the police failed to photograph the bed on which the rape allegedly occurred. Nor did they test the bed coverings and sheets for bodily fluids. Indeed, their initial reports made no mention of hair on the bed. Only later, at trial — after Elmore had been compelled to give samples of his pubic hair — did this claim mysteriously materialize. By the police’s own admission, his hair was kept in an unsealed evidence bag, raising even more questions.

Reading these appalling details, the surprise isn’t that Elmore’s conviction was overturned. It’s that prosecutors kept pursuing him and juries kept sentencing him to death — three times in all. And that’s only the beginning of a saga that winds through countless appeals and motions.

Elmore eventually finds skilled and passionate appeals lawyers. Time after time they try to overturn his conviction. Time and again, over years and years, they are rebuffed. (The legal battles are so protracted that, at one point in the narrative, the author simply skips over seven years in Elmore’s saga.) These agonizing attempts occupy the second two-thirds of the book.

The most galling moment in these failed tries occurs 14 years into Elmore’s case, when he is losing for the umpteenth time in a bid for “post-conviction relief.” After months of hearing evidence and briefs, South Carolina state judge J. Ernest Kinard turned down Elmore’s motion. That in itself was not unusual. It was how he did it. According to the book, Kinard simply copied the prosecutor’s brief — which disparaged Elmore’s claims of innocence — and adopted it as his opinion. As the author puts it: “He didn’t modify a paragraph, a word, a comma. He didn’t even clean up the typos.”

Having failed to offer a single thought of his own in his “opinion,” Kinard sent the lawyers a three-paragraph letter. It concluded: “Edward Lee Elmore may well not be guilty and I appreciate the effort put forth by defense counsel and perhaps an appellate court may agree with one of your positions and grant relief.” It’s hard to imagine a more cynical act: A judge — the very person who could have granted Elmore relief — accepting the prosecution’s argument wholesale and then tossing off a short note casually mentioning that the defendant “may well not be guilty,” as if he had nothing to do with Elmore’s case.

Bonner describes the note as “egregious,” which spotlights a tension in his writing. He believes Elmore was railroaded — the title of the book alone makes that clear. Inside courtroom scenes, he inserts lines such as “The state’s case was beginning to resemble Pinocchio’s nose.” He shows himself to be deeply concerned about the mistakes and callousness of the judicial process involving death penalty cases (even if he never explicitly proclaims his opposition).

But Bonner is also an old-fashioned newspaper reporter with an unadorned, just-the-facts style that can border on flat. So there are periodic jarring shifts in tone, as Bonner alternates between those two modes. And occasionally, Bonner clogs his narrative with extraneous, narrative-slowing details. At one point he interrupts a dramatic, life-or-death race to the courthouse to identify the building’s architect.

If you are a staunch advocate of the death penalty, you probably won’t like this book. Of course, if you are such an advocate, you’re precisely the person who should read it.

Anatomy of Injustice makes a useful legal primer. Periodically, Bonner pulls back from Elmore’s case to offer short summaries of the important developments, and the more than occasional outrages, in death penalty cases. You could call this a lawyer’s book for laypeople — not only because of its cogent legal summaries but because it focuses on an underdog appeals lawyer named Diana Holt. Holt rose from an abused childhood to become a tireless and fiery advocate for Elmore. She’s a compelling character who, along with her co-counsel, becomes the key player in the book’s drama. If there is such a thing as a “good” side to death-penalty cases, it’s the decades of toil and commitment that lawyers like Holt pour into a case like this.

The defendant, alas, is not so vivid. That’s probably inevitable. With a fifth-grade education and an I.Q. that puts him at the level of mild retardation, Elmore is nowhere near as articulate as the lawyers. Through most of the book’s action, he remains locked in a prison cell while the action swirls around him. Elmore sometimes appears as a background character in his own story. Bonner seems aware of this and repeatedly returns to Elmore’s plight.

So where, exactly, does Elmore’s case stand 30 years after it began? Frankly, the book’s final pages are bumpy. After 272 pages spent methodically building the case for Elmore’s innocence, Bonner reveals that in 2007, DNA testing found traces of the victim’s blood on pants Elmore was wearing when he was arrested in 1982.

Bonner suggests that the police may have “planted” the blood, which is not impossible given their prior record of misconduct in the case. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if Elmore is quite as innocent as Bonner has led us to believe. A few pages later we learn that in 2007, a judge reduced Elmore’s sentence to life imprisonment based on new Supreme Court limits on executing mentally disabled people.

It’s not the clear-cut exoneration a reader (or Bonner) might hope for. But before the reader can even process that, there’s a brief epilogue that was apparently added at the last moment: In late November, a federal appeals court overturned Elmore’s conviction. The chief reason (cited in the opinion but not in the book): the “gross failure” of Elmore’s original lawyers. The opinion also asserted that there was “evidence of police ineptitude and deceit” and wondered in one place whether “the real perpetrator was Holloway,” the neighbor (who is now deceased).

The epilogue notes that there was a fervent dissent to the opinion, which Bonner suggests will encourage the state of South Carolina to continue its pursuit of Elmore through further appeals. Death penalty cases, this book makes clear, are profoundly messy. “Meanwhile,” as Bonner puts it, “Elmore remains in prison.”