DNA Testing Ordered on Executed Man

By Maria Glod and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 5, 2006; 6:48 PM

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has ordered DNA testing that could prove the guilt or innocence of a man executed in 1992, marking the first time a governor has asked for genetic testing of someone already put to death.

The testing, begun last month, comes in the case of Roger Keith Coleman, a convicted killer whose proclamations of innocence -- including on the night of his execution -- sparked concern nationwide over whether the wrong man died in Virginia's electric chair.

"We have found that the latest DNA technology -- in certain instances where the other facts of a case support it -- has provided a definitive result not available at the time of trial or post-conviction testing," Warner said in a statement.

"This is an extraordinarily unique circumstance, where technology has advanced significantly and can be applied in the case of someone who consistently maintained his innocence until execution. I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence. My prayers are with the family of Wanda McCoy as we take this extraordinary step."

Coleman was convicted of killing McCoy.

The tests, on vials of evidence that have been preserved for years at a California laboratory, are being conducted at Ontario's Centre of Forensic Sciences (CFS) lab in Toronto, according to the governor's office. Results could be announced before Warner leaves office next week.

If Coleman is exonerated, it would mark the first time in the United States that the innocence of an executed person has been proven through genetic tests.

Ira Robbins, an American University criminal law professor, said if Coleman is proven innocent it would push many Americans who are unsure about capital punishment to oppose it. But even if the tests prove Coleman was a killer, he said, it could spark testing of more old cases nationwide.

"Lets assume it comes back that he was proved innocent. Here is the case that the death penalty opponents have been looking for for a long time -- that we have executed an innocent person," Robbins said. "It could be the biggest turning point in death penalty abolition."

Coleman, a coal miner from Grundy a small mountain town in southwest Virginia, was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1981 brutal rape and stabbing of his sister-in-law, 19-year-old Wanda McCoy. But questions about his guilt have lingered for decades.

In recent years, state officials and judges, including the Virginia Supreme Court, have refused requests by a charity that investigates wrongful convictions and several media organizations to allow modern testing of evidence gathered at the crime scene.

In 2001, a lawyer with the Virginia attorney general's office told a circuit judge that "Continual reexamination of concluded cases brings about perpetual uncertainty . . . and disparages the entire criminal justice system."

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