GREENWOOD, S.C. — Edward Lee Elmore glanced at the ceiling when a judge asked him if 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,” and then looked toward the heavens again.
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“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 was convicted three times of killing of 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.
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Prosecutors agreed 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 to the cheers of those brothers and sisters.
“What a great day,” Elmore said in the parking lot.
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. “I want peace, I need peace. Can you get me peace?” the prosecutor recalled her saying.
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 good.
“He didn’t even cuss a guard,” Peace said.
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 talking 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.
“Freedom is justice and that’s why he is doing it today,” Holt said.
Holt has done this before. In May 2002, she helped Sterling Spann get a similar deal after decades on South Carolina’s death row.
“It’s so bittersweet,” Holt said. “But at least right now, the sweet outweighs the bitter.”
Edwards smile rarely faded after his release. When Holt reminded reporters he saw at least 30 of his fellow inmates executed during his 28 years on death row, he dropped his head.
“Great guys in there, some of them,” he said.
He also frowned when a reporter asked if he had anything to say to Edwards’ family. Holt stepped in and said they would request the family’s wishes to not talk about the case. “It was 30 years for them too,” she said.
Then the topic turned to lunch, and Elmore’s family was taking him to a buffet restaurant where he would have dozens of dishes, many of them greasy and flavorful, to choose from. Elmore said prison was day after day of bland meals like liver or a chicken and gravy mixture.
“That stuff was roadkill,” Elmore said.
Elmore’s older sister Henrietta Grant smiled. She remembered one of her brother’s chief complaints every time she would pile in a van with several of her siblings for the 150-mile trip to see him on death row. “They ain’t got no onions,” she recalled him saying.
Grant was one of a half-dozen family members headed for the restaurant. Just before she left, she was asked her plans now that her brother was going to be back in Greenwood. She flashed a big smile.
“We’re going to take him home and love him,” she said. “And I do the cooking, so I am going to fatten him up.”
Elmore stood in the parking lot and took a deep breath. This wasn’t the way he thought this case should end, but for him, it was justice.