Just after his 18th birthday, African-American Elmer Daniels was arrested on January 17, 1980 and charged with first-degree rape. It followed a report by a 15-year-old white girl named G.S. that she had been raped along the railroad tracks in Wilmington, Delaware.
On May 22, 1980, Daniels was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to life in prison, despite several witnesses, including his mother, testifying that he was playing basketball at a community center when the assault occurred.
The supposed victim was with another 15-year-old boy at the rail tracks and according to K.C, they were having sex when a black man wearing tan pants and a green jacket approached them, and chased him off, and then according to G.S. he took over and sexually assaulted her.
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When police threatened K.C with third-degree rape, he claimed to have recognized the assailant because they had been in the same eighth-grade homeroom a few years earlier mentioning Elmer. The state’s case hinged in part on the testimony of G.S. and K.C. Also supposed forensic evidence from Michael Malone, an analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said that the pubic hair the police had collected from pants in Daniels’s house was consistent with the pubic hair of the victim in “all microscopic characteristics,” connecting Daniels to the crime.
Despite Daniels’ protest, he spent 39 years in jail and was only released from the Howard R. Young Correctional Institution prison on Dec. 13, 2018. Although his earlier appeals were unsuccessful, Daniels’ good fortune was attorney Emeka Igwe who rightfully said: “Without my involvement, Elmer would have died in jail.”
“In 2017, Daniels hired a new lawyer, Emeka Igwe, who reviewed the case and contended that evidence suggesting his client’s innocence never saw the light of day — that included fingerprints that did not match Daniels’, and a psychiatrist’s testimony that the victim’s description of the assailant did not match Daniels’ appearance. A teenaged witness also provided false testimony that he and Daniels were in the same class, but Igwe found not only were the boys in different grades, but attended different schools.”
Igwe of Nigerian stock made it clear it was his legal team which initiated the work to get Daniels out of prison, a feat state prosecutors cannot take credit for despite their attempt.
“The attorney general wasn’t going to look at his case or review his case. They want to act like they were benevolent and cared that he already served 39 years … but he (the attorney general) only did what he did because they were forced to,” Igwe stressed.
As he left prison, Daniels praised Igwe for helping him get the charges dismissed. “To find someone that believed in me and having me trust them. It was very hard for me to trust, going through what I was going through at such a young age. For the most part, it felt like nobody cared, but he did.”
Despite the flawed testimony which led to his conviction and eventual vacation of the original conviction, the state refuses to call Daniels innocent.
When Daniels left prison, he only had the clothes on his back and less than a week’s supply of insulin for his diabetes. He did not receive any compensation for his wrongful conviction or his time served in Delaware prisons.
To help get some much needed justice, Daniels spoke at Legislative Hall in support of Delaware’s compensation bill, which was introduced by Representative Sean Lynn. The bill made it out of the House Judiciary Committee, but was never put on the floor by Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf for a vote.
Lynn expected a vote on the bill this year. However, because COVID-19 postponed the state’s legislative session until further notice, he’s unsure if it will be heard by then. If reelected in November, he said he will reintroduce the bill if it doesn’t get a vote this year.
“My hope is this becomes that seed money for exonerees to rebuild themselves,” Lynn said.
Life on the outside has been tough for Daniels. The biggest hurdle is landing a job that will provide financial support.
He is financially dependent on his fiancé, who he lives with in Maryland. It is to rectify such injustice that he’s advocating for legislation sponsored by state Rep. Sean Lynn that would provide a fixed income for every year a person who was incarcerated on a wrongful conviction in Delaware.
More than 2,600 people have been exonerated in the U.S. since 1989, according to a national registry that keeps track of cases.
“The state is the one that did harm to the individual, and it’s the state’s responsibility to repair that damage,” said Michelle Feldman of the Innocence Project, a 25-year-old organization that now advocates for policy changes to help exonerees.
Daniels said he doesn’t want future exonerees and their loved ones to go through the same hardships. Lynn’s legislation would pay the wrongly convicted in Delaware $50,000 per year of incarceration, which is prorated for those imprisoned less than a year.
The proposal is a more direct path to compensation than what’s currently available to the state’s exonerees — that’s filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the government actors who contributed to the wrongful conviction which can take 10 years to battle.
When Daniels was paroled in 2015 as a registered sex offender, he failed to complete a required sex-offender therapy program because he refused to admit his guilt maintaining his innocence. The other violation was for failure to hold a job after he got fired from a restaurant when a police officer told the management that he would tell patrons that a sex offender worked there. So with that he returned to prison a year later for violating the conditions of his parole.
“In 2013, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers began a review of FBI analysts’ testimony and reports on hair comparisons. In 2015, the group said the review had found that analysts, including Malone, had provided erroneous testimony or reports in more than 90 percent of cases it had studied.”
Daniels’ attorney, Emeka Igwe, contacted the U.S. Department of Justice in 2017, asking for a review of his client’s case.
Crucially also, on the night Daniels was arrested, police had seized several pieces of clothing from his house, including a pair of tan pants and a green field jacket like the one G.S. described. Daniels had said the jacket wasn’t his but rather belonged to one of his younger brothers.
In May 2018, Daniels’s attorney asked the FBI to run the fingerprints found on the notebook through its database. The sources of the fingerprints were both of his brothers, one of whom had been in homeroom with K.C.
The 58-year-old sums things up succinctly when he said “What the money will do is help me transcend into a phase of life I can be comfortable with and allow me avenues I choose to do,” adding, “I need capital to make my dreams come true.” If passed, Daniels would receive $1.95 million.