DNA Tests Confirm Guilt of Executed Man

By Maria Glod and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 13, 2006

Modern DNA tests have confirmed the guilt of a Virginia man who had proclaimed he was innocent of murder and rape even as he was strapped into the electric chair and executed more than a decade ago, the governor announced yesterday.

The results stunned and disappointed those who have fought a 25-year crusade to prove that Roger K. Coleman was innocent. They also dashed hopes among death penalty foes that the case would catalyze opposition to capital punishment across the country.

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) yesterday said genetic analysis conducted in recent weeks proves that Coleman, who was executed in 1992 for the slaying of his 19-year-old sister-in-law, was a rapist and killer. The tests show there is a one in 19 million chance that semen found on the victim's body belonged to someone else.

"We have sought the truth using DNA technology not available at the time the commonwealth carried out the ultimate criminal sanction," Warner said in a statement. "The confirmation that Roger Coleman's DNA was present reaffirms the verdict and the sanction."

Coleman's case had become a focal point in the debate over capital punishment, with opponents insisting that DNA tests would prove that an innocent man was put to death and proponents saying that justice was served. Coleman had maintained his innocence in a series of television and newspaper interviews that generated attention around the world, and his backers tried for years to get the courts or politicians to order the tests. Warner, in his last weeks in office, agreed to allow the analysis and became the nation's first governor to allow post-execution testing.

Legal scholars said the test results denied death penalty opponents a long-sought opportunity to put a human face on one of their most compelling arguments: that the U.S. justice system makes mistakes that result in the executions of innocent men.

"The opportunity to bring new people into the abolitionist movement has been lost," said Phyllis Goldfarb, a professor at Boston College's law school.

But Goldfarb said that though the exoneration of an executed inmate could have profoundly eroded support for the death penalty, confirmation of Coleman's guilt won't change many opinions. "Supporters of the death penalty will be confirmed in their skepticism of claims of innocence," she said. "Opponents still have reason to oppose. The risk of executing innocents still exists."

Coleman, a coal miner from the small Appalachian town of Grundy, Va., was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1981 rape and stabbing of Wanda McCoy.

Coleman's assertions of innocence and questions over the strength of the evidence prompted Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey charity that investigates wrongful convictions, to investigate the case. Media organizations, including The Washington Post, joined Centurion in an unsuccessful court fight to have the DNA tests conducted years ago.

Yesterday, James C. McCloskey, Centurion's executive director, said he felt betrayed by the man whose last words included the statement, "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight."

"How can somebody, with such equanimity, such dignity, such quiet confidence, make those his final words even though he is guilty?" McCloskey said.

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