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Dithering on DNA

Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A18

WHEN MARK R. WARNER became Virginia's governor three years ago, we greeted him with the friendly suggestion that he order new DNA testing in the case of Roger Keith Coleman. The commonwealth executed Mr. Coleman back in 1992, but both before and since the execution, his guilt has been heatedly disputed. An early form of DNA testing before his death suggested that he did commit the rape and murder for which he was condemned, but its methodology was controversial, and more modern testing might finally put the matter to rest. Ordering the testing should not be a tough call. New tests might -- by proving Mr. Coleman's guilt once and for all -- remove a cloud that has hung over Virginia's criminal justice system since the execution. They might also prove that a horrible injustice took place, clarify the need for judicial reforms and make clear that a murderer remains at large. It simply cannot hurt to know the truth.

Yet Mr. Warner has sat on his hands. A year after he took office, a New Jersey group that investigates wrongful convictions petitioned Mr. Warner to order the testing. A year ago, the governor's office disclosed that he was seriously considering the matter. And when we asked the governor about it last year, he said he had "spent a lot of time with the Coleman case" and had "wrestled with it a lot." But all this wrestling hadn't produced a decision.

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Four months later, in March, Mr. Coleman's prosecutors announced that they had no objection to the testing. But this didn't break the logjam either. Mr. Warner's spokeswoman, Ellen Qualls, said that the governor was "still thinking about" it and probably wouldn't make a decision "in the thick of the legislative session." Wait around long enough -- until the legislature meets again -- and a good line like that can be recycled. Asked this week about the Coleman decision, Ms. Qualls said this in an e-mail: "The Governor still has the issue under consideration." She suggested, "Check back after the General Assembly session."

This is getting ridiculous. It should take no great political courage for Mr. Warner to order the testing. It's hardly as though Mr. Coleman -- who is dead, after all -- will walk free if the testing exonerates him. The only questions the case still raises are of historical accuracy and retroactive accountability for the state's criminal justice system. Mr. Warner has said in the past that he worries about the possibility of an inconclusive result as well as of undermining the "finality" of convictions in the commonwealth. But an inconclusive test would leave public understanding of Mr. Coleman's case no worse off than it is today. And finality in such a case is a double-edged sword. Mr. Coleman, after all, insisted upon his innocence from the day of his arrest to his haunting last words: "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight." If he was telling the truth -- however improbable that might seem -- respecting the "finality" of his conviction means never prosecuting the person who actually committed the murder. Every day that Mr. Warner dithers, he tacitly betrays an anxiety that the justice system over which he presides cannot withstand daylight.

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