The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Edward Lee Elmore's 29-year-old murder conviction on Tuesday.
The court, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that Elmore was entitled to habeas corpus relief on his Sixth Amendment claim of ineffective counsel because his trial lawyers blindly accepted the State's forensic evidence. The court described the situation as "one of those exceptional cases of 'extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems' where habeas relief was appropriate to remedy injustice.
The court also noted that there were grave questions about whether Elmore committed the murder.
Elmore will be free unless South Carolina decides to prosecute him in a new trial within "a reasonable amount of time."
Elmore had three trials over an 8-year period, followed by 14 years of post-conviction appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court set aside his first death sentence in 1986, but he was convicted and resentenced to death in two subsequent trials, reports the AP.
Elmore was South Carolina's longest-serving death row inmate until last year, when South Carolina Circuit Judge Mark Hayes vacated Elmore's death sentence and remanded the imposition of a life sentence, reports the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Judge Hayes imposed the life sentence after Elmore's attorneys successfully argued that Elmore was mentally retarded, and his execution would be cruel and unusual punishment under Atkins v. Virginia.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has not issued a statement regarding the case. Wilson could choose to prosecute Edward Lee Elmore a fourth time, appeal for an en banc hearing from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, or apply to the Supreme Court for review.
- Edward Lee Elmore v. Ozmint (Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Death by Returned Letter? Court Hears Maples v. Thomas (FindLaw's Supreme Court blog)
- Troy Davis Case: Should Supreme Court Have Stayed Execution? (FindLaw's Supreme Court blog)
- Ineffective Counsel Plus Prejudice Needed to Withdraw Guilty Plea (FindLaw's Seventh Circuit blog)