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Anatomy of Injustice

If wrongful convictions and the death penalty concern you, Anatomy of Injustice – A Murder Case Gone Wrong is required reading.  Author Raymond Bonner displays gifted storytelling and keen insight into the frailties of the U.S. criminal justice system.  He uses the wrongful conviction and capital case of Edward Lee Elmore to do so. 

The setting is South Carolina.

Edward Lee Elmore – a black man with limited mental capacity – was convicted in 1982 of the murder of Dorothy Lee Edwards, a well-to-do white woman.  After three trials, Elmore’s conviction was upheld and he was sentenced to death.

In many ways Edward Elmore’s story is a classic case of wrongful conviction.  It involves the usual factors – poor defense counsel, lousy police investigation, snitch testimony, and prosecutorial misconduct.  The injustice dealt Mr. Elmore was facilitated by a climate of racial prejudice.  And the condemned man’s only hope was defense attorney Diana Holt, who wrestled with personal demons as she doggedly fought for justice in America’s courts.

But Elmore’s case also illustrates a horrific flaw in the way “justice” is defined in the United States.  Evidence of Elmore’s actual innocence was found after he was convicted and sentenced to die.  This development in Elmore’s case allows Bonner to delve into the significant obstacles facing people sentenced to death, even when convincing evidence supports their innocence.  Indeed, Bonner states, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a condemned man claiming innocence to get a new trial.” 

Most interesting and disturbing is Bonner’s review of the Supreme Court’s twisted logic with regard to the death penalty.  Unbelievably, Supreme Court of the United States permits the execution of innocent people – even if the state supports their innocence claims. Bonner introduces readers to multiple death penalty cases in which prosecutors conclude that a different individual committed the murder for which the original defendant was wrongfully convicted.  Yet appeals courts fail to overturn these wrongful convictions, and consequently, innocent people are executed.  Why?  Because in Herrera v. Collins, the Supreme Court determined that factual evidence of actual innocence does not matter.  Rather, a defendant must prove that his or her constitutional rights were violated in order to receive a new trial.  As Chief Justice William Rehnquist states in Herrera, federal courts “sit to insure that individuals are not imprisoned in violation of the Constitution – not to correct errors of fact.” 

Far too often, the U.S. criminal justice system fails to deliver justice.  As Bonner states, “the system is only as good as the lawyers who administer it – prosecutors, defense counsel, judges.  If prosecutors abuse their authority, if defense lawyers are lazy or incompetent, if judges are weak or biased, the result is injustice, and in capital cases that can spell death.” 

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