Va. family still suffers effects of guilty plea to rape that never happened

November 26, 2011

They believed that their son was innocent but were afraid that Virginia’s penal system would grab hold of him and never let go.

So Cherri Dulaney and Edgar Coker Sr. told 15-year-old Edgar Jr. to plead guilty to raping a 14-year-old friend. Their court-appointed attorney told them that was better than risking adult charges and a lengthy prison term.

Two months after their decision, in November 2007, the girl admitted that she had lied.

The Cokers have been fighting ever since to rescue their son from the consequences. He served 17 months in a juvenile prison. He remains on the Virginia sex-offender registry, and the family moved to avoid harassment from neighbors.

Last month, Coker, now 20, was arrested during a Friday night football game at the Orange, Va., high school he graduated from after his release from juvenile prison. Unless they have permission from the school, convicted violent sex offenders are not permitted on school grounds. But Coker had received such permission, and he attended school there for more than a year before graduation.

“He can’t do something as simple as go out with his brothers and see a football game,” his mother said as she fought back tears during a recent interview from the family’s modest rambler in Mineral, Va.

Coker’s attorneys are working to have the conviction vacated in Stafford County, and the Virginia Supreme Court is expected to hear the case early next year. To his attorneys and other advocates, the case is about the dangers of ineffective counsel and about Virginia’s restrictive post-conviction laws, which make it extraordinarily difficult for people like Coker to get a retrial.

“We have a kid here who’s innocent,” said Andy Block, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia law school and director of the school’s Child Advocacy Clinic, who is helping with Coker’s defense. “If the Virginia courts fail to intercede, he will suffer consequences for the rest of his life.”

To his parents, those lasting consequences are the most painful part of this saga. They lament that they couldn’t afford a better attorney for their son.

“He has his whole life ahead of him, and where is he now? With this hanging over his head, he has limited options,” said Edgar Coker Sr., 44, a warehouse supervisor who often tears up when going over the facts of the case. “We made a mistake in giving up originally. All we want him to have is another chance.”

The sex, the parties now agree, was consensual.

But when Michele Sousa caught Edgar Jr. with her daughter, the girl claimed it was rape. He was arrested in June 2007, and by September he was sent to a juvenile prison outside Richmond.

Just after Thanksgiving 2007, however, Sousa’s daughter, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, told her mother that she lied because she was afraid of getting in trouble. Both Coker and Sousa’s daughter had learning disorders that required special education when they were in high school. In a letter to the Circuit Court, the girl wrote:

“Eger didn’t rely rape me . . . in fact we did it befor. Eger was a friend of mine befor this even happend . . . but now it just seems that I lied about Eger. . . . I will never forgive myself.”

The news set the Cokers on a journey to correct a wrong.

They have written letters, filed motions and appeals, been disappointed and, on occasion, won small victories. They got their son, for instance, an early release from juvenile prison.

The current fight is about the ineffective legal assistance that the Cokers claim they received.

‘A false choice’

Deirdre Enright, director of investigation for the University of Virginia’s Innocence Project Clinic, is helping with the case. She understands why the family took the deal.

“It was a false choice,” she said. “All they knew was if they rolled the dice and they were wrong, their son was going to go to prison for a very long time.”

Undoing what’s been done is difficult. Coker’s attorneys are aware of very few instances of a person’s name being removed from the state’s sex-offender registry.

“The ball always rolls one way,” Enright said.

But the family is trying anyway.

The family’s argument is that Denise Rafferty, his original attorney, was ineffective. Among their assertions: that Rafferty did not interview school officials who knew that the girl had a history of similar false accusations and that Rafferty did not fight the judge’s decision to put Edgar on the sex-offender registry. They also contend that Rafferty told Edgar Coker Sr. that his son should plead guilty because the prosecution had DNA evidence linking him to the crime. A lab report shows that the test was never conducted.

Rafferty, in an interview, acknowledged no wrongdoing. She said she did the best she could with the evidence she was presented. The Cokers, she said, often missed appointments, making her efforts to mount a defense difficult.

Meanwhile, the state attorney general’s office has sought to have Coker’s claim dismissed, arguing that because he is no longer in prison, the court does not have jurisdiction to hear his case. A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said the office does not comment on pending cases.

The initial Stafford County prosecutor, Eric Olsen, did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

‘We live in constant fear’

The family has moved several times, twice because of complaints from neighbors who learned that Edgar Coker Jr. was on the registry. Once, a neighborhood girl made a false sexual allegation against one of his brothers, and someone else left this note on their door when they lived in Stafford County: “We don’t want a rapist living in our neighborhood.”

Similar notes have been left for them over the years, and the frequent moves have disrupted their careers and complicated the duty of raising their other children.

“The hardest thing has been trying to keep our family intact, moving from place to place with all the things we’ve had to deal with,” said Dulaney, 40. She said the family hasn’t always made the right decisions and that fear of the charges clouded the desire to fight the accusations. “We’ve moved. We’ve lost houses. We’ve lost jobs.”

Even Sousa, 44, the girl’s mother, has weighed in, speaking out publicly that Coker deserves justice.

“This is all because my daughter lied, and it’s been very hard to deal with that,” she said in an interview. “I can’t image what Edgar and his family have gone through. I hope everything they’re doing can make this situation right again.”

Coker graduated from Orange High in June 2010 after he was released from juvenile detention and received special permission to attend the school. Since then, he has spent most of his recent days at the house, not interested in continuing his education. He is embarrassed to look for jobs, his parents said, because he has to admit to being listed on the sex-offender registry. He declined to answer questions about his experience.

“It’s been hard on all of us, not because of what he did but because we all hate to see him go through these things,” said Tevin Coker, 19, who said it has been especially difficult to watch his brother struggle with life after prison.

On the night of the recent arrest, Dulaney had taken Coker and two of his brothers to a football game at Orange High. Dulaney, the protective mother, waited in the parking lot. The next thing she knew, her youngest son called to tell her that Edgar had been arrested, she said.

Edgar was taken to Central Virginia Regional Jail before he was released on $3,000 bond. His face had been put on a news release and posted on the Internet.

Dulaney said any progress her son had made in overcoming his shame has evaporated.

“Most of these years, we’ve lived in constant fear,” Dulaney said, “fear of more allegations, fear of people who might see him on the sex-offender registry and fear of our young sons being out without us, not knowing what could happen to them. It’s been hard believing that anyone can undo the damage that has been done to him.”

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