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anatomy of injustice

4 october 2012

Raymond Bonner's Anatomy of Injustice is a familiar kind of book, and that adds to its poignancy. There shouldn't even be one book about a very probably innocent man being condemned to death; if there's one, it should shock and outrage its readers. The fact that there's a whole genre of such books is what's truly appalling.

Bonner tackles the story of Edward Lee Elmore, convicted by the state of South Carolina for the same murder in two different trials, and sentenced to death in three (having won a second complete trial, and a third penalty-phase trial, on appeal). Elmore eventually won a reprieve from execution, because he was found to be retarded. Bonner portrays him as a simple, cheerful, harmless sort, with no tendencies to violence at any point in his life. In fact, Elmore's essential gentleness made even hardened death-penalty lawyers believe that he was not merely unjustly sentenced, but actually innocent of murder.

Bonner retraces the thinking of one of these lawyers, Diana Holt. All the familiar elements of a perversion of justice emerge. There was no probable cause even to arrest Elmore; nothing noted at the scene of the crime connected him to the crime. The neighbor who found the body of the murdered woman suggested they investigate Elmore, who indeed knew the victim, and whose fingerprints appeared in her house: he'd worked for her as a handyman, and had cashed a check of hers for his pay. Elmore was swiftly convicted of murder when a tuft of his pubic hair was supposedly found on the victim's bed. Oddly enough, just after his arrest, police had pulled out a tuft of Elmore's pubic hair, which only then seemed to materialize on the bed. All kinds of things were weird about the lightly-investigated crime scene, leading both Holt and Bonner to suggest that the neighbor was the killer, and that Elmore was framed. But the neighbor was well-off and white, and ELmore poor and black; and this was South Carolina in 1982.

Elmore eventually went free in the spring of 2012 (just after Bonner's book was published, wonderfully for Elmore but bad timing for Bonner, whom I'd imagine is delighted all the same). He was never formally found not guilty. And even after reading Bonner's catalogue of injustices, one has some residual sympathy for the substantial number of fair-minded people who worked over the year to convict him and keep him imprisoned, and for the jurors who voted to convict and kill him, and even for the appeals lawyers who worked to deny him another chance. One must have some faith in the court system, it seems to me, and not everything is a vast conspiracy.

Or a conspiracy at all. Yet there were grave miscarriages of justice in the Elmore case, ones that magnified and enhanced one another to the point where they nearly killed him. Police did sloppy work, at best. Prosecutors railroaded grand and trial juries alike. Most grave, Elmore's defense lawyers did almost nothing to evoke "reasonable doubt" – and that was the "technicality" that finally freed him. One emerges from Bonner's book not just with a reasonable doubt that Elmore killed Dorothy Edwards, but with grave doubts that there's any relevant evidence saying he did; if anything, the doubts are residual ones of his innocence, and possibly occasioned by planted or severely mishandled physical evidence (hair, fiber, blood). And without a defender who can manage the issue of doubt, any one of us could be headed for the gurney.

I'd as lief never read a book like Anatomy of Injustice, and if it's the last one I do, it's an excellent example of its genre to end upon.

Bonner, Raymond. Anatomy of Injustice: A murder case gone wrong. New York: Knopf [Random House], 2012.

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