UPDATE TO THIS REVIEW: Edward Lee Elmore -- a black man who faced execution after he was wrongly convicted of killing a white woman in South Carolina -- was released from prison today after serving nearly thirty years. His release comes after numerous appeals and as the direct result of a plea deal negotiated by his attorney. Elmore's story is the subject of Raymond Bonner's new book ANATOMY OF INJUSTICE. Bonner, who was present at the Greenwood SC courthouse at the time of the announcement, said “It can hardly be called justice when, in order to obtain his freedom, a man had to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit.”
For those seeking more ammunition for their battery of anti-death-penalty arguments, look no further. “Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong’’ is Raymond Bonner’s accomplished and meticulously researched investigation into a murder case that, as the clumsy title suggests, was egregiously bungled.
In 1982, in Greenwood, S.C., Edward Lee Elmore, 23, is accused of killing an elderly widow.
Elmore had occasionally done odd jobs for the victim. When her body is found in her closet, stabbed dozens of times and possibly raped, Elmore is fingered as the prime suspect, despite a notable lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime.
The small-town police officers, prosecutors, and medical examiners work together and cram his arrest, trial, conviction and eventual sentencing to death into three months - astonishingly rushed, given that most capital cases drag out for years. Elmore’s legal team is described as, at best, dispassionate, and at worst, incompetent. Bonner complains they did “virtually nothing.’’
Thickening the plot and heartbreak: The accused is poor, African-American, and mentally disabled, facts that seem never to bother the judges and juries over Elmore’s 27-year trail of legal appeals. He could not “tell time or draw a clock. He didn’t understand the concept of north, south, east, and west or of summer, fall, winter, and spring.’’ He could not do the elementary math to keep a bank account. Cross-examined on the stand, he simply replies, “I didn’t - ’’ “I couldn’t . . .’’ “No, sir, I wasn’t there.’’
A longtime reporter for The New York Times, where he shared a Pulitzer Prize, and a former New Yorker magazine staff writer, Bonner writes prose best described as workaday. It’s only in part two, when he introduces his narrative’s plucky heroine, Diana Holt, an idealistic lawyer with a sketchy criminal past who becomes Elmore’s guardian angel, does Bonner risk literary flourishes. “What the hell am I doing?’’ he has Holt thinking as she leaves Texas and her children behind to work at the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center. “Am I a horrible mother?’’
Holt makes a compelling protagonist. We invest in how, and if, she will get Elmore off death row. True-crime junkies also will be entertained by prurient details, from descriptions of the victim’s bludgeoned body to baggies of hair samples and blood-spattered jeans. We read transcriptions of courtroom proceedings, and we delight as witnesses are caught in lies. Neophytes to criminal law (this reviewer included) learn that despite new evidence proving a person’s innocence, fresh trials are rare. In this case, lawyers must prove not that Elmore was not the killer, but that his “constitutional rights had been violated.’’
If, voice-wise, “Anatomy of Injustice’’ can at times fall flat, as a piece of reporting, the book is masterful. Bonner builds the story, and his argument, carefully, rarely editorializing, mixing in a précis of capital punishment in the United States, and letting readers draw their own conclusions. And while Bonner’s investigation does not prove Greenwood’s law enforcement officials framed Elmore, he does make a convincing case that justice was not served. “Elmore’s story raises nearly all the issues that mark the debate about capital punishment: race, mental retardation, bad trial lawyers, prosecutorial misconduct, ‘snitch’ testimony, DNA testing, a claim of innocence.’’
Bonner’s book is an important addition to the body of evidence against the death penalty. As he argues, our system of justice thrives on conflict. In any trial, among the cast of conviction-seeking prosecutors and appellate lawyers hoping for a break, there must be winners and losers. “[T]he adversarial nature of it outweighs justice,’’ Bonner writes. “Justice often gets lost.’’
And while it would be unfair to reveal here whether Holt and Elmore win, beyond a shadow of a doubt it is worth reading “Anatomy of Injustice’’ to find out.