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.
"Had the evidence shown him to be innocent . . . that would have had a tremendous effect on the anti-death-penalty movement in terms of perhaps encouraging moratoriums and even abolition," McCloskey said. "Those are not the set of facts we have in this instance. That will not happen, at least as the result of this case."
But he and his attorney, who battled without pay for six years to have Coleman's DNA tested, insisted that Coleman's case will serve as a model to encourage other politicians and prosecutors to allow testing of DNA before and after someone is convicted. "The results in this case don't end the debate over the death penalty," said Paul Enzinna, a lawyer with the Washington firm of Baker, Botts.
Tom Scott, a criminal defense lawyer from Grundy who helped prosecute Coleman, said he remained convinced all along that the right man was tried, convicted and executed.
"I never had any doubt about his guilt, never," Scott said. "All the evidence always pointed to Coleman."
During Coleman's trial, authorities said evidence included hair on McCoy's body that was similar to Coleman's and the account of a jailhouse informant. Coleman also had been convicted of attempted rape a few years earlier.
Coleman said he had an alibi and would not have had time to commit the killing. Defense attorneys also gathered affidavits from people who said another man admitted to killing McCoy.
The testing in Coleman's case marks only the second time nationwide that DNA tests have been performed after an execution. In 2000, tests ordered by a Georgia judge in the case of Ellis W. Felker, who was executed in 1996, were inconclusive.
Genetic tests exonerated Florida inmate Frank L. Smith in 2000, several months after he died of natural causes while awaiting execution.
After the results of the testing in Coleman's case were made public, the death penalty debate continued.
"Today's finding is a further demonstration that Virginians' trust in our criminal justice system is well founded," said Robert F. McDonnell (R), who will become Virginia's attorney general tomorrow. "Today is further proof that this is exactly the manner in which the death penalty has been, and will continue to be, employed in the commonwealth."
Joshua K. Marquis, vice president of the National District Attorneys Association and an Oregon prosecutor, was more vehement. "This is not at all unexpected and puts to a lie the myth that wrongful convictions are epidemic," he said. "Coleman was not just a rapist and a murderer but a liar as well."
But Peter Neufeld, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project, which has helped exonerate more than 170 inmates, said that there may have been mistakes in other cases and that similar investigations should continue.
"Today we got just one answer, and one man cannot speak for the correctness of the verdicts in a thousand other capital cases," Neufeld said.