By JEFFREY COLLINS and MEG KINNARD
GREENWOOD, S.C. (AP) -- A mentally disabled man who spent nearly 30 years on South Carolina's death row for the stabbing death was freed from prison Friday under a plea deal.
A lawyer for Edward Lee Elmore said he 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 gave a thumbs up after a hearing and said it "feels great" to be leaving prison.
About an hour later, Elmore walked out of the Greenwood County courthouse to the cheers of his family. He said his first plans were to head to a buffet or lunch because he was tired of eating prison food.
"What a great day," he said as we walked to his lawyer's car.
Elmore`s lawyers have argued for years that a blond hair found on her after her death shows Elmore was not her killer because he has black hair.
The hair did not exonerate Elmore but 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 three of his sisters and two of his brothers who were in the courtroom. Many of them were in tears as they quietly spoke. One of them smiled as she turned away as the hearing got ready to begin and said, "Oh, what a long time coming."
Prosecutor Jerry Peace said one reason he offered the 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 didn't even cuss a guard. He never did anything," Peace said.
Peace said he still thinks Elmore is guilty, and cited evidence linking him to the crime. There was a spot of Edwards' blood on Elmore's jeans, Peace said.
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."
Elmore was convicted in a brief trial in Greenwood, a former textile town of about 23,000 people in the northwest part of the state. As with most death row cases, his appeals made their way through a variety of courts.
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 blond 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, per a 2002 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
State prosecutors didn't oppose a judge's decision to sentence him to life in prison, and Elmore was, after 28 years, moved from the state's death row to another maximum-security prison.
In September 2010, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., heard arguments about the blond hair.
Elmore's attorneys said authorities concealed the strand by labeling it as a carpet fiber. Prosecutors argued the strand should be considered along with other evidence, including some four dozen pubic hairs that matched Elmore's DNA, as well as the defendant's incriminating statements to a jailhouse informant.
The judges overturned his conviction in November. After considering the case for more than a year, the court ruled investigators failed to follow standard procedures in collecting hairs from Edwards' bed, neglecting to take photos, collect bedcovers or sheets for further forensic analysis or package the hairs like other evidence taken from the crime scene.
Defense attorneys also failed to capitalize on an expert's finding that Edwards likely died at a time when Elmore could prove he was elsewhere, the court said.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court denied South Carolina prosecutors' request to delay Elmore's fourth trial. Friday's bond hearing was among the first steps of that process.