Reading TUgether: Anatomy of Injustice

Of all the Reading TUgether books I’ve read during my time at Trinity, it seems to me that Raymond Bonner’s “Anatomy of Injustice” is, the most relevant.

Coming to this realization was both encouraging and disturbing; I was happy that the Reading TUgether committee had selected such an urgent and edifying book, but I was horrified that the book’s frightening central narrative seemed to be playing out all around me as I read it. This book explains the ways in which our constitutional rights are often denied. As I look at current events in places ranging from Ferguson, Mo., to Washington, D.C., I wonder if those rights are being destroyed.

As the title suggests, “Anatomy of Injustice” is not a polemic against widespread corruption, but a patient exploration of a single corrupt case. The case, which took place in the 1980s, involved Edward Lee Elmore, a mentally ill African-American man placed on death row for supposedly murdering an elderly South Carolinian woman.

Elmore was indicted because his fingerprint was found at the woman’s house. However, this evidence was deeply flawed, since the police had no way of establishing when the fingerprint was left. Despite this gaping evidential hole, the indictment pressed on.

This outrageous oversight was but the beginning of Elmore’s journey. Over a riveting 290 pages, Bonner lays out the legal labyrinth that trapped Elmore for well over a decade.

We learn how his prosecutors often exploited loopholes, and how his defense team rarely made the best possible case for his innocence. Elmore ultimately walked off death row, but not before giving up a substantial piece of his life to a legal system that did not care about or fight for him.

As the above summary conveys, Elmore’s story is scarily sensational””and it is a good thing that the author does not try to sensationalize it further. Save for a few unnecessary asides, Bonner firmly avoids John Grisham territory, and we should thank him for that. He is particularly effective at making good, rational-minded use of court transcripts, comparing and contrasting statements that unmask the flimsiness of the case against Elmore.

Although Bonner does not turn the historical tale into a cheap thriller, he does lend it just the right amount of eloquence and literary flair. Notice, for example, how he skillfully paints a portrait of the victim and the suspect by discussing their hands. The victim used hers for colorful art and embroidery; the suspect, mathematically illiterate, used his to count to ten.

Perhaps most praiseworthy of all is Bonner’s refusal to make the U.S. justice system into Satan or to elevate Edward Lee Elmore to sainthood. Instead, his goal is to show how one man was subjected to a government-approved nightmare, and to put that nightmare in context.

By laying out the facts with such investment and precision, Bonner gives Elmore the defense he so desperately deserved””and gives Trinity students a message that we must urgently need. I’m very, very glad we read this one together.

Note: This year’s Reading TUgether lecture will take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 27 in Laurie Auditorium.