Closure on Mr. Coleman

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

MARK R. WARNER's decision in his final days as Virginia's governor to order the retesting of evidence in the case of Roger Keith Coleman has put an important controversy to rest. Mr. Coleman, executed in 1992 for a rape and murder more than a decade earlier, was shown to be guilty as charged. Mr. Coleman persuaded a great many people of his innocence. Even for those, like us, who were not convinced by his claims, his case was among the more disturbing capital cases to go to execution in the modern era of the death penalty. Thanks to Mr. Warner, those concerned that Virginia might have executed an innocent man now know that the commonwealth carried out the death sentence of a murderer -- and a very clever liar.

The decision of whether to allow post-conviction testing is often characterized -- as it was in Mr. Coleman's case -- as a conflict between certainty and the "finality" of convictions upheld by the criminal justice system. As the Coleman case shows, however, the conflict is often fictitious. When a state has locked up -- or in this case put to death -- the right man, it has nothing to fear from the truth. Where a conviction is not solid, finality is not a virtue.

The final proof of Mr. Coleman's guilt is being cited by supporters of the death penalty as evidence that there is nothing wrong with the system. They are wrong. The outcome merely shows that in a single case in which the evidence was thin and the appellate process cut dangerously short by procedural errors, no harm was done in the end. That's reassuring. But it hardly means the death penalty poses no threat to innocents. Mr. Coleman was not innocent. Others facing death no doubt are.

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