Press Ponders Va. Court’s Decision On DNA Testing

By: Joe Strupp

Despite a Virginia Supreme Court decision denying a request by four newspapers to retest DNA evidence from a murder case that ended 10 years ago with an execution, press efforts to obtain such evidence in the future will not stop.

“I think there are other states that are more likely to find that the media has the right to intervene,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “Virginia is known to be less progressive in public access than a lot of others.”

In a Nov. 4 editorial, The Washington Post, one of the newspapers involved, blasted the court’s decision and all but accused it of blocking evidence that could prove an innocent man was executed: “Failing to test serves only to shield the state’s death penalty and criminal-justice apparatus from the possibility of a mistake coming to light.”

The court’s Nov. 1 ruling denied a request by the four papers to obtain and retest DNA evidence from the trial of Roger Keith Coleman, who was executed in 1992 for the 1981 rape and murder of his sister-in-law.

The Boston Globe first brought suit two years ago in Buchanan County (Va.) Circuit Court, where it was joined by the Post, The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, and the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch. Judge Keary R. Williams denied that request last year.

Shortly afterward, the papers appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, which has now upheld the decision. “The definition of access does not include the right of the public at large or the press to subject evidence in a criminal case to testing,” the court stated.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, said the retesting would provide nothing useful because the suspect had already been convicted and executed. “There has to be some eventual finality to it,” he said. “DNA testing should be for the living.”

Shawn McIntosh, president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, countered, saying the DNA results are as valuable as any other news. “If it is information that is knowable, what is the harm?” she said. “Having the truth available, and not being able to get it, is not going to help public confidence in the system.”

McIntosh feared the decision could set a bad precedent. “It will make it harder for journalists to seek the truth,” she said.

Since the Globe and the Post are among the few major papers to editorialize against capital punishment, some have speculated that their main motive in this case was political: Proving that an innocent person had been executed would be a first in the United States. But Globe editors said they sought the retesting as part of a story on the growing use of DNA tests to free convicted inmates. “We thought it was an innovative way to add something to the ongoing debate [over DNA testing],” said John Farrell, the Globe‘s Washington editor. “We were not pioneering to prove that an innocent person was executed.”

The Globe succeeded in 2000 in getting a court order to retest DNA in a Georgia case of a man executed in 1996 for rape and murder, but that testing was stopped last year after results proved inconclusive.

Margaret Stone, an attorney who handled the Virginia case for the newspapers, said the court’s decision would not adversely affect other efforts to obtain similar evidence.

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