July 8, 2002

Still on Death Row, Despite Mounting Doubts


COLUMBIA, S.C. — Less than 48 hours after police found Dorothy Edwards dead in her bedroom closet, they arrested a 23-year-old man who had done chores around her house. Four months later, the man, Edward Lee Elmore, was sentenced to death for the sexual assault and murder of Mrs. Edwards, a wealthy, socially prominent 75-year-old widow.

Mr. Elmore has been on death row for 20 years. Though he was convicted by two juries — his first conviction was overturned on technical grounds — he has always maintained his innocence. His lawyers argue that he was framed by investigators who planted evidence and lied in court. They also say they have DNA evidence that casts doubt on Mr. Elmore's guilt.

One might expect such contentions from defense lawyers. But further doubts about Mr. Elmore's convictions have been raised by others, including the medical examiner whose autopsy report was critical in his arrest and conviction, who now says she has reservations about how the state used her findings. A retired F.B.I. forensics expert, hired by South Carolina, calls a state report that linked Mr. Elmore to the crime "a fraud."

In the last month, the national debate on the death penalty has taken on new force, driven by Supreme Court rulings barring the execution of the mentally retarded and saying that death sentences must be imposed by juries, not judges.

The decisions are part of a continuing reconsideration of the death penalty. As DNA testing has exonerated prisoners on death rows around the country, governors of two states, Illinois and Maryland, have declared moratoriums on executions. On July 1, a federal judge in Manhattan ruled that the current federal death penalty law was unconstitutional, citing the growing number of exonerations of death row inmates through DNA and other evidence. In the last three years, 24 death row inmates in 14 states have been given new trials or freed altogether, often on the basis of DNA evidence, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington advocacy group critical of the death penalty.

In the shadow of these changes are death row prisoners like Mr. Elmore. Though doubts about his guilt have been raised over the years — including the lawyers' assertions about the DNA testing of evidence that the state said it had lost — Mr. Elmore, who has an I.Q. of 75 and a fifth-grade education, has not been able to get a new trial.

Officials in the South Carolina attorney general's office, which has been handling the appeals in the Elmore case, declined to be interviewed for this article, and would not allow investigators to discuss it.

Dorothy Edwards was found dead in her home on Jan. 18, 1982, by James M. Holloway, her next-door neighbor of 36 years in Greenwood, a small town in western South Carolina. According to his trial testimony, Mr. Holloway walked to Mrs. Edwards's house around noon that day, knocked on the back door and, hearing no answer, went in.

Mr. Holloway, who was 66 at the time, said that he saw spots of blood on the kitchen floor. When he walked into Mrs. Edwards's bedroom, he said, he saw blood on the carpet and in the bathroom and noticed the closet door ajar.

He said he left to get a neighbor, Mildred Clark, and returned with her. Back in the bedroom, Mr. Holloway testified, he pulled on a pair of work gloves and opened the closet. Inside was the corpse.

Mr. Holloway — who has since died, as has Mrs. Clark — then called the police.

The officers concluded that because there was no sign of forced entry, Mrs. Edwards must have known her killer. A diamond ring and other jewelry were left in the bedroom, and "large amounts of silver" were untouched, a police report said.

Mr. Holloway told the police that they would probably find the murderer if they looked in Mrs. Edwards's checkbook, records show. There they found that she had paid Mr. Elmore $43 for doing yard work and washing windows.

Based on Mr. Holloway's statements and a fingerprint of Mr. Elmore's found near Mrs. Edwards's back door, the police picked up Mr. Elmore.

The jurors heard from Mr. Holloway; from investigators who said they had found Mr. Elmore's pubic hairs on Mrs. Edwards's bed; from a jailhouse informer who said Mr. Elmore had admitted to the crime; and from the medical examiner, whose testimony helped support the prosecution's contention that the crime had probably occurred at a time for which Mr. Elmore had no alibi. The evidence at both trials was largely the same.

As time has passed, though, that evidence has become less solid. The prison informer later testified under oath that he had lied at Mr. Elmore's trials. Mr. Elmore's lawyers say that his fingerprint on the back door could have been left long before the crime. Questions also remain about two other keystones of the prosecution's case: that Mr. Elmore lacked an alibi, and that hairs found at the crime scene were his.

The prosecutor at Mr. Elmore's first trial, William Townes Jones III, told the jury that the medical examiner had found "Negroid" hair on Mrs. Edwards's abdomen. Mr. Elmore is black.

But in a recent interview, the medical examiner, Dr. Sandra E. Conradi, said this had never been her conclusion, and could not have been.

Dr. Conradi's autopsy report said there was "dark-colored, tightly curled" hair on Mrs. Edwards's abdomen. This did not necessarily mean the hair was from a black person, she said.

"A lot of men have dark curly hair," Dr. Conradi said in an interview at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, where she is a professor of anatomic pathology.

Questions about whether the hairs came from a black person went unchallenged at Mr. Elmore's trials. The evidence had disappeared.

Dr. Conradi said that after the autopsy, she sent the hair and other evidence to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. But when the division's chief forensic investigator, William Earl Wells, looked at microscope slides containing the evidence, he found no hairs, only "blue fibers," according to his laboratory report.

Dr. Conradi said she could not understand this. "A hair is a hair, and a fiber is a fiber," she said in the interview. "There is no confusing the two, under the microscope." South Carolina officials would not allow Mr. Wells to be interviewed.

After Mr. Wells examined the slides, they disappeared.

At an appellate hearing in 1995, Mr. Wells testified under oath that he had given the slides to the Greenwood Police Department. He repeated that he had found "no hair, just blue fibers." The court accepted this, and denied Mr. Elmore a new trial.

In 1998, in response to further efforts by Mr. Elmore's lawyers, the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered a search for missing evidence. Mr. Wells then found the slides in his file cabinet.

The state then hired a retired F.B.I. forensics expert, Myron T. Scholberg, to examine the rediscovered slides, which were labeled "Item T." He found hair on three of the four.

In an affidavit, Mr. Scholberg said, "I do not know how or see how Mr. Wells could have looked at the four microscopic slides and honestly reported that the four Item T slides only contained blue fiber." He added, "No hairs of Negroid origin were observed on any of the slides."

In an interview, Mr. Scholberg said the race of the person from whom the hair came could easily be determined using a microscope. He called Mr. Wells's report "a fraud."

Mr. Elmore's lawyers then had DNA tests done to determine if the hair belonged to Mrs. Edwards. They say it did not.

Armed with Mr. Scholberg's affidavit and the DNA test, Mr. Elmore's lawyers returned to court in December 2000 to seek a retrial. Judge J. Ernest Kinard ruled against them. He also denied a request from Mr. Elmore's lawyers to exhume Mr. Holloway, Mrs. Edwards's neighbor, to see if the hair was his.

In both trials, the state told the jury that Mrs. Edwards had died about 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, a time for which Mr. Elmore could not account for his whereabouts.

But in the interview, Dr. Conradi urged caution. Because South Carolina coroners 20 years ago were not well trained in determining time of death, she said, "there's no way to know" the time of the killing with any certainty.

Michael Baden, a former New York City medical examiner, reviewed Dr. Conradi's autopsy report and her trial testimony for The New York Times. He concluded that the time of death was most likely no more than 36 hours before the autopsy, which was on Tuesday. If so, Mrs. Edwards was probably murdered on Sunday, not Saturday, he said. Mr. Elmore and his relatives told police he was with his family on Sunday.

The most powerful evidence against Mr. Elmore was the pubic hairs that investigators said they found on Mrs. Edwards's bed.

At the first trial, the prosecutor, Mr. Jones, offered a graphic explanation for the presence of hair on the bed, claiming that the assailant seized a fistful of hair from her attacker. "When he put his part of his body into the part of her privates, it was so repulsive to the lady that she then grabbed down there for the first time and came out with 40-something of pubic hairs," he said, according to a trial transcript.

Mr. Elmore's lawyers argue that there were no hairs on the bed.

No police report at the time mentioned hairs. Nor does Mr. Wells list hairs from the bed on his report of the items he was given for testing. Police officers who were there declined to be interviewed.

In addition, the investigators did not take the sheets as evidence. There was no need to, they said. "We did not see any stains of any kind," an investigator testified in one of Mr. Elmore's postconviction hearings.

While the investigators took more than 100 photographs of the crime scene, they did not photograph the bed. "An oversight," an investigator testified during one hearing. The court accepted that explanation.

© Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company


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