People often ask Pulitzer-winning journalist turned author, Raymond Bonner, if his new book, Anatomy of Injustice: a Murder Case Gone Wrong—which took nearly twelve years to reserch and write—is a labor of love.
“Actually, it’s a labor of outrage,” Bonner said, when he spoke on Sunday afternoon at a LA book party given in his honor.
Outrage is only one of the array of emotions evoked by Bonner’s riveting account of the case of Edward Lee Elmore, a 23-year old, dirt-poor black handyman with an IQ of 61, who was arrested, tried and convicted of killing a 76-year-old white woman, a murder he almost certainly did not commit, then sentenced to death for the crime.
Every form of injustice seems to be present in the true crime tale of Ellmore’s legal railroading: prosecutorial misconduct, racial prejudice, planted and withheld evidence, staggeringly callous and disinterested defense attorneys, a lying jailhouse snitch coached by the prosecution (but who years later suffered an attack of conscience and confessed to his perjury)… and more.
In choosing this particular case to deconstruct, Bonner got a cast of great characters that give the story near-novelistic richness. Most prominent among them is a remarkable heroine in the form of Diana Holt, a law student working as an intern for the South Carolina Death Penalty Resource Center (who had her own traumatic personal story) who took up Elmore’s cause after several failed appeals by other attorneys, and whose obsession with seeing justice done for Elmore never wavered after she passed the bar and became a crack appeals lawyer. It was Holt’s dogged work and determination that eventually got him off death row.
Yet still he remained in prison That took a withering ruling by the 4th circuit court of appeals vacating his conviction, along with the publication of Bonner’s book to finally persuade a prosecutor to cut a deal that allowed Elmore his freedom earlier this month, after 30 years behind bars, most of those years spent fighting the threat of execution.
As the reader follows Elmore’s almost unbearably painful journey through the justice system, Bonner gives us an informative and deeply disturbing look at the issue of capital punishment in general by taking us deep into the workings of the legal machinery to see all the ways matters can and do go awry, then showing us how nearly impossible it is to set things right, once an injustice has been rendered—even in the face of factual innocence.
The event for Bonner was hosted by Laurie Becklund, and her husband Henry Weinstein, both former reporters for the LA Times. (Beckland is now an author and Internet publisher, while Weinstein, who is also an attorney, is teaching at UC Irvine’s law school. )
Guests who had come to meet Bonner included such criminal justice types as Judge Arthur Alarcon, formerly of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and the co-author of last year’s study looking at the yearly cost of the death penalty in California, and .
There were also two exonerees at the book party, Thomas Goldstein, who served 24 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and Gloria Killian, who served 17 years before her conviction was set aside, and who now runs, The Action Committee for Women in Prison and who has her own book coming out soon.
Other guests included LA Times columnist and editor at large, Jim Newton, and his wife, LA Times legal counsel, Karlene Goller, along with Geneva Overholser, the director of USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, and actor Mike Farrell who is also president of Death Penalty Focus and his wife, actress, Shelley Fabares.
As luck would have it, on Sunday Bonner’s book was reviewed glowingly on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Here’s a clip:
This much we know to be true: On a cold winter weekend in early 1982, somebody murdered 76-year-old Dorothy Edwards. Apparently she knew the perpetrator, since she let him into her handsome home on a quiet side street in Greenwood, S.C. The crime itself was horrific. She was beaten with a blunt object, stabbed repeatedly — one ear was almost severed — probably sexually assaulted; her body was stuffed into a bedroom closet, where it was discovered on Monday afternoon, Jan. 18. The next day the police arrested Edward Lee Elmore, a 23-year-old handyman whom Edwards had recently hired to do a few odd jobs around the house. He was formally charged with first-degree murder on Jan. 21, tried in the second week of April, found guilty by a jury that deliberated for two and a half hours, and sentenced to death.
We know this as well: As of this writing, there have been 1,283 executions in the United States since 1976, when the Supreme Court ended its four-year moratorium on capital punishment. There have also been 134 death row exonerations, almost half of them since 1999. In his mesmerizing new book, “Anatomy of Injustice,” Raymond Bonner, a onetime prosecutor and a former investigative reporter and foreign correspondent at The New York Times, makes a persuasive case that Elmore ought to be added to the list of the innocent. Instead, he spent nearly 30 years in the South Carolina state penitentiary, most of that time on death row, trapped by a complex of forces that too often warp the legal process, even when a man’s life hangs in the balance.
I raced through Bonner’s un-put-down-able book about Elmore in less than 48-hours, slowed down only by such pesky needs as working, eating, running with the dog, and sleep.
LATER THIS WEEK I’LL HAVE NEWS ABOUT OTHER MUST-READ BOOK, JUMPED IN BY JORJA LEAP.
Jumped In is part memoir, part an academic researcher’s journey that takes us deep into the causes of—and solutions to—gang violence, with with highly-regarded-researcher and violence reduction expert Leap as our guide.
In the meantime, you can hear Jorja discuss her important new analysis of Los Angeles gang life on Tuesday night 7:30 at Skylight books.
See you there!
PS: All Leap’s proceeds from the book will be donated to Homeboy Industries.
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Los Angeles, California 90027
PPS: Here’s Leap talking with Larry Mantle at KPPC.