On March 3, 2012, Edward Lee Elmore walked out of prison after thirty-one years behind bars, twenty-nine of which he spent on death row. His ordeal began in 1982, when he was convicted for the sexual assault and murder of Dorothy Edwards in Greenwood, South Carolina. During the lengthy appeal process that ensued, “the state’s case began to unravel,” says John H. Blume, Professor of Law, and director of Clinical, Advocacy, and Skills Programs as well as the Cornell Death Penalty Project. Blume argued Elmore’s third direct appeal in 1987 and has been involved in the case ever since, along with Diana Holt and Chris Jensen.
“The primary attack was on the reliability of the physical evidence,” he says. Once Elmore’s legal team was able to enlist disinterested qualified forensic experts, it encountered increasingly strong indications that damning evidence had been fabricated or over-interpreted by authorities. In one instance, an evidence bag marked “Item T” went missing for years; when it resurfaced, it was found to contain a pubic hair belonging to a man other than Elmore. Despite such revelations, in 2000 a South Carolina judge again ruled against Elmore saying “one hair was not enough.”
In 1993, Blume joined the Cornell Law faculty and, in conjunction with Cornell Professors Sheri Lynn Johnson and Stephen Garvey, formed the Cornell Death Penalty Project to foster empirical scholarship on the death penalty, offer students an opportunity to work on death penalty cases, and provide information and assistance for death penalty lawyers. Students in the Project’s capital clinics became involved in Elmore’s case, performing research, conducting interviews, and drafting claims periodically over the next decades of litigation.
In 2010, with Blume as lead counsel, clinic students assisted in an Atkins hearing at the conclusion of which a South Carolina state judge ruled, based on the Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia, that Edward Elmore was a person with mental retardation and thus not eligible for execution. The judge commuted Elmore’s death sentence to life imprisonment and the state chose not to appeal.
In late 2011, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which Blume notes is among the most conservative federal courts of appeal in the country, vacated Elmore’s convictions finding that his trial counsel provided constitutionally ineffective assistance during the guilt phase of Elmore’s capital trial. State prosecutors offered Elmore an Alford plea, whereby Elmore would maintain his innocence while pleading guilty to time served in exchange for his immediate release. Elmore accepted the deal, and after spending the majority of his life in confinement, was finally released.
“I think it is a happy but bittersweet ending to a long fight,” says Blume, “I am 100 percent convinced he is not guilty and that a jury would have acquitted him, but I can totally understand that he just wanted out and wanted this behind him.” Blume described the case as a “lesson in the power of persistence.” Reflecting on all those who worked to free Elmore, including the “incredibly dogged” Diana Holt, who developed most of the evidence establishing Elmore’s innocence, Blume noted that it was also a “testament to teamwork.”