Warner Orders DNA Testing In Case of Man Executed in '92

By Maria Glod and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 6, 2006

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner 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 put to death.

The analysis, which began last month, comes in the case of Roger K. Coleman, a convicted killer whose proclamations of innocence -- including on the night of his execution -- raised concern nationwide over whether the wrong man died in the electric chair.

Warner's decision marks a dramatic turnaround in Virginia, where officials and judges have routinely refused to reexamine evidence in criminal cases after a defendant's conviction and have been steadfast in their denials of post-execution requests. Results of the Coleman tests, which are being conducted by scientists in a Toronto laboratory, could be announced before Warner (D) leaves office next week.

"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," Warner said yesterday in a statement. "I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence."

If Coleman were exonerated, it would be the first time in the United States that an executed man is cleared through genetic tests.

Ira Robbins, an American University criminal law professor, said that if Coleman was innocent, it would sway many Americans who are unsure about capital punishment to oppose it. But even if the tests confirm that Coleman was a killer, he said, it could spark a movement nationwide to test more old cases.

"It could be the biggest turning point in death penalty abolition," Robbins said. "Let's 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."

Coleman, a coal miner from Grundy, a small mountain town in southwest Virginia, was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1981 rape and stabbing of his sister-in-law, 19-year-old Wanda McCoy.

Brad McCoy, who was married to Wanda McCoy when she was slain, said he remains convinced that Coleman killed her and said he's been hurt by the questions raised about Coleman's guilt.

"I really don't understand why it's being done," said McCoy, who has remarried and has two children. "We keep talking about Roger Coleman as the victim. Wanda McCoy was the victim. I have no doubt in my mind it will prove him guilty. Where does it end?"

In recent years, state courts, including the Virginia Supreme Court, have refused requests by Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based charity that investigates wrongful convictions, and several media organizations to allow modern testing of evidence gathered at the crime scene.

The evidence has been held in a freezer at a California DNA laboratory by Edward Blake, the forensic scientist who performed more primitive tests in 1990 that put Coleman within 2 percent of the population that could have produced the sample. Blake was barred from testing the evidence without permission from Virginia, but he did not return it for fear it would be destroyed.

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