In the days leading up to his execution, Holt talked to Johnson almost daily, convinced, then as now, that he was innocent of the murder of Bruce Smalls. On execution day, she spent almost seven hours with him in a small cell outside the death chamber, where she found him smoking cigarette after cigarette, wildly talkative at times and somber at others. With the hour of his execution almost upon him, he ate his last meal (fried shrimp, fried oysters, French fries, chocolate cake, and iced tea), and then, at 6:18 p.m., at the age of 39, he was put to death. At his funeral, before the casket was closed, his sister managed to cut some locks of his hair. A few days later, she and Holt went to a North Carolina beach that he’d loved, waded into the surf, and let them go.
The Johnson case hardened Holt’s opposition to the death penalty and strengthened her resolve to win a new trial for Edward Lee Elmore. There was some cause for hope: DNA testing revealed that the Caucasian hair found on the body of Dorothy Edwards was not her own, raising the possibility of a white killer. That alone seemed sufficient to warrant a new trial for Elmore, but the judge in the case ruled otherwise. “One hair,” he declared, “is not enough.” Last November, however, more than 18 years after Holt first started working on the Elmore case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Virginia, ruled 2–1 that Elmore was indeed entitled to a new trial. The senior justice on the bench dissented strongly, however, and the State of South Carolina has already declared its plans to appeal.
Holt has strong personal opinions about Johnson’s and Elmore’s innocence. At root, though, her objection to the death penalty isn’t so much moral as it is practical. “There is no way to implement it fairly,” she says. “Despite all legal safeguards, whether one gets death or not is dependent on geography, the elected official with the power to seek it, the color of his skin, gender, the color of the victim’s skin, the victim’s gender, wealth of any of those, poverty of the defendant, mental health of any of those, and judges with agendas”—not to mention, she continues, “the integrity of law enforcement, the competence of law enforcement, the competence of forensic analysts, and on and on.”
These are the sorts of factors that, in January of 2003, famously led the governor of Illinois, George Ryan, to make the extraordinary move of commuting the sentences of 167 death-row inmates on a single day. It was a monumental step, all the more so because as a legislator, in 1977, Ryan had voted to reinstate the death penalty. Ryan made his announcement at Northwestern University Law School, where a joint clinic with the journalism school had recently resulted in several men’s release from death row. Ryan told his audience that when he had become governor, in 1999, he had strongly supported the death penalty. “I believed,” he recalled, “that the ultimate penalty for the taking of a life was administered in a just and fair manner.” But now he wasn’t so sure, not in light of the work recently done by the clinic at Northwestern—and certainly not in light of “the systematic failures of our capital-punishment system,” as he put it, that had recently been revealed in a landmark series of articles published by the Chicago Tribune. Two of the paper’s reporters, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong, had closely examined some 300 capital cases in Illinois and discovered that nearly half of them had been reversed on appeal.