four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
58-May-June-2012
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0

737292.pngRaymond Bonner, an author and reporter for the New York Times, graduated from Stanford University Law School, served as an assistant district attorney in San Francisco, and founded the Public Interest Clearinghouse, at Hastings College.

The Topic: In January 1982, Dorothy Edwards—76, well-to-do, and white—was butchered in her home in the small town of Greenwood, South Carolina. Within hours of discovering her body, the Greenwood police arrested Edward Lee Elmore—young, mentally handicapped, and black, with no previous felony record and only a tangential connection to the victim. After a short trial with an incompetent defense and contaminated evidence, Elmore was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Eleven years later, young Texan attorney Diana Holt, herself a childhood victim of abuse, worked to get his death sentence commuted. Through this tragic tale, Bonner reveals the injustices of the American justice system—and its betrayal of those it is designed to protect.
Knopf. 298 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9780307700216

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Bonner’s work offers a seminar on capital punishment and the politics of incarceration. … My sole reservation about this generally impressive book is that Bonner’s thorough arguments would be more convincing if he tempered his extreme dislike of the South." Tom Zelman

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a marvelous move: in Holt’s relentless investigation, Bonner has found a way to turn this sad, sordid story into an utterly engrossing true-crime tale. … [A] powerful book." Kevin Boyle

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Bonner, who reported on the Elmore case while working as a staff reporter for the New York Times, is a lawyer as well as a journalist and brings professional expertise to the book. He also brings passionate feelings about the proper roles of [ prosecutors] and defense attorneys." Jonathan Yardley

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Bonner describes in detail how evidence may have been planted, that the crime scene was contaminated, that exculpatory evidence was said to have been lost, that police conducted a cursory investigation and focused on Elmore to the exclusion of other suspects, and the autopsy on the victim was sloppy and led to potentially inaccurate conclusions." Jeff Baker

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Bonner returns to his roots as a lawyer by chronicling how police, prosecutors and judges too often arrest and convict the wrong person. … Although Elmore has never been found actually innocent, it is clear from this book that Bonner considers him innocent." Steve Weinberg

Critical Summary

In 2000, Governor George W. Bush championed his faith in the fairness of the death penalty; during his six years as governor, he presided over 152 executions and claimed that Texas had never executed an innocent inmate. Soon after, Bonner, who was reporting for the New York Times, started to research the death penalty. Though at first he saw Elmore as "a garden-variety death penalty case," he came to view the case as a touchstone for hot-button issues defining the debate over capital punishment, including race, prosecutorial (mis)conduct, and DNA testing. Given the complex gray areas of Elmore’s case, it’s not surprising that most critics chose to rehash its trajectory rather than evaluate Bonner’s authorial skills. But in describing the murder case "gone wrong," they lauded Bonner’s choice to focus on Holt and described the book as powerful, persuasive, and as mesmerizing as the best true crime novels.