With less than two weeks left of his term, time is running out for Gov. Mark R. Warner to decide whether to order DNA testing in a nearly quarter-century-old murder case which drew wide media attention–a move that could determine if Virginia executed an innocent man in 1992.
If the tests show Roger Keith Coleman did not rape and murder his sister-in-law in 1981, it would mark the first time in the United States an executed person is scientifically proven innocent, say death penalty opponents, who are keenly aware that such a result could sway public opinion their way.
“I think it would be the final straw for a lot of people who are on the fence on the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Five years ago, four newspapers and Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey organization that investigated Coleman’s case and became convinced of his innocence, had sought a court order to have the evidence retested.
The four papers were: The Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe.
Warner–a rumored Democratic presidential contender for 2008– hopes to finalize negotiations over how the test would be conducted before his term ends Jan. 14, said spokesman Kevin Hall.
Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of 19-year-old Wanda McCoy, his wife’s sister, who was found raped, stabbed and nearly beheaded in her home in the southwestern Virginia coal-mining town of Grundy.
The case drew international attention as the well-spoken and media-savvy Coleman pleaded his case on talk shows, in magazines and newspapers. Time Magazine featured the coal miner on its cover. Pope John Paul II intervened to try and block the execution. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s office was flooded with thousands of phone calls and letters of protest from around the world.
Coleman’s attorneys argued he didn’t have time to commit the crime, that tests showed semen from two men was found inside McCoy and that another man bragged about murdering her.
Despite the controversy, Coleman was executed on May 20, 1992, maintaining his innocence until the end.
“An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight,” the 33-year-old said moments before he was electrocuted. “When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.”
DNA tests in 1990 placed Coleman within 2 percent of the population of those who could have produced the semen at the crime scene. Additional blood typing narrowed Coleman to within 0.2 percent of possible perpetrators. His lawyers said the expert who conducted the test– whom they had hired–misinterpreted the results.
Four newspapers pressed for new testing, and after the Virginia Supreme Court declined to order the testing in 2002, Centurion Ministries asked Warner to intervene.
Warner’s decision has been held up in part because the sample is not in the state’s possession, Hall said. The evidence is being stored in a Richmond, Calif., lab by the forensic scientist who conducted the initial DNA tests.
Edward Blake, who has kept the sample frozen since 1990, has balked at returning the evidence to Virginia, arguing that testing should be conducted at his lab. He has said that Virginia has a vested interest in tests that would either confirm Coleman’s guilt or be inconclusive, since a result showing Coleman was innocent could tarnish the state’s criminal justice system.
Blake has also argued that transporting the fragile evidence –about one-fifth of a drop of sperm–could destroy it.
Warner, Blake and Centurion Ministries have been working on a negotiated process in which an independent lab would take possession of the sample and test it, Hall said.
“This is an issue that a lot of people have spent a lot of time working on and it certainly is the governor’s desire that an acceptable procedure be hammered out before we leave office,” Hall said.
If the parties can’t come to an agreement before Warner leaves, the issue will fall to Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Kaine, who supports DNA retesting in the case, said Delacey Skinner, a Kaine spokeswoman.
Tom Scott, a Grundy attorney who helped prosecute the case, said he has no objection to retesting the DNA, and is confident doing so would confirm Coleman’s guilt–provided the sample has been properly preserved and not tampered with.
“If the integrity of the sample has been violated in some way, we’re gonna have an inconclusive result which isn’t going to settle anything,” he said.
Scott said a mountain of evidence points to Coleman as the killer: There was no sign of forced entry at McCoy’s house, leading investigators to believe she knew her attacker; Coleman was previously convicted of the attempted rape of a teacher and was charged with exposing himself to a librarian two months before the murder; a pubic hair found on McCoy’s body was consistent with Coleman’s hair; and the original DNA tests placed him within a tiny fraction of the population who could have left semen at the scene.
Coleman also failed a lie detector test hours before his execution.
“When you add all of this evidence together, it’s a connect-the-dots case,” he said. “In my mind, there just wasn’t any question about it.”
The push to retest the evidence in Coleman’s case is more about advancing an anti-death penalty agenda than trying to determine if an innocent man was executed, said Dianne Clements, president of the Houston-based victim advocacy group Justice for All.
Further, she said, new testing is unnecessary and could open up the nation’s justice system to a flood of requests by inmates seeking DNA retesting in their cases.
“It’s been tested before,” Clements said. “At what point is it over?”