Helped by a single strand of hair, a mentally disabled man who spent nearly 30 years on South Carolina's death row for the stabbing death of a woman will go free today under a plea deal.
A lawyer for Edward Lee Elmore said Elmore maintains his innocence in the death of Dorothy Edwards, a widow he worked for as a handyman, but he pleaded guilty to murder so he could be released from prison. Edwards' body was found in a closet in her home, stabbed 52 times.
Elmore argued that a strand of blond hair found on Edwards after her death shows he was not her killer because he has black hair.
Elmore gave a thumbs-up after the hearing and said it "feels great" to be leaving prison.
The hair does not exonerate Elmore, but it raised enough doubt to win him a new trial and a bail hearing that led to the plea deal. The chance to leave prison after three decades comes after numerous appeals and his sentence being overturned three times, including a reduction from death to life in prison.
"Freedom is justice, and that's why he is doing it today," Elmore's attorney, Diana Holt, said.
Just before the hearing, deputies allowed Elmore to see sisters and brothers who were in the courtroom. Many were in tears. One said, "Oh, what a long time coming."
Raymond Bonner, a former New York Times reporter, 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 authorities hastily arrested Elmore. Bonner said prosecutors never established a motive.
"There aren't a lot of people on death row who are factually innocent," Bonner said. "Edward Lee Elmore is factually innocent. He did not commit that crime. ... He was framed."
Prosecutor Jerry Peace said one reason he offered the plea deal was because the victim's sister wanted to end the case. He also said Elmore served 11,000 days behind bars without a single violation.
"He never did anything," Peace said.
Peace said he still thinks Elmore is guilty. There was a spot of Edwards' blood on Elmore's jeans, Peace said.
As other death row inmates were exonerated because of new DNA testing technology, Elmore's attorneys asked a judge in 2000 to overturn his convictions because a blond hair found on Edwards after her death did not match her or Elmore.
Elmore's lawyers thought the hair may have belonged to Edwards' next-door neighbor, and they asked a judge to exhume the man's body to test his DNA, but a judge denied the request
It wasn't until 2010 that Elmore began to see his fate turn around. A South Carolina judge ruled he was mentally unfit and could not be executed.
In September 2010, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments about the blond hair.
The judges overturned his conviction in November. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court denied South Carolina prosecutors' request to delay Elmore's fourth trial.