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DNA Tests May Signal Shift in Death Penalty Debate

Jim McCloskey, who fought to exonerate Roger K. Coleman, said he felt betrayed by Coleman, who had said he was innocent.
Jim McCloskey, who fought to exonerate Roger K. Coleman, said he felt betrayed by Coleman, who had said he was innocent. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

McCloskey, other Coleman supporters, death penalty foes and media outlets, including The Washington Post, lost a years-long court battle to have biological evidence in the case tested using modern techniques. But last month, Warner (D) agreed to allow the analysis, becoming the nation's first governor to order post-execution testing.

On Thursday, Warner announced that there was a one in 19 million chance that semen found on McCoy's body belonged to someone other than Coleman.

Virginia Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R) issued a statement saying that the tests showed that "trust in our criminal justice system is well founded" and that the death penalty has been fairly carried out in the state.

At the same time, death penalty opponents have noted that although Coleman was guilty, more than 170 prisoners have been exonerated by DNA tests in recent years. Some of them were on death row. In December, Warner ordered a broad examination of samples in old cases after two men who had been wrongly convicted of rape were exonerated by DNA tests. The governor quietly allowed the Coleman tests about the same time.

Ira Robbins, an American University law professor, said perhaps the most important contribution of Coleman's case is that it may help persuade officials across the country to seek DNA tests in other post-conviction or post-execution cases.

"I think that other governors have cover provided by Governor Warner, because he comes from a conservative state," Robbins said.

Indeed, McCloskey and others have urged other officials to follow Warner's lead.

"Governor Warner's decision . . . establishes an important principle: that we should always continue searching for the truth in criminal cases," said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project.

The testing in Coleman's case marks only the second time nationwide that DNA tests have been performed after a defendant was executed. In 2000, tests ordered by a Georgia judge on evidence 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.

McCloskey, who left work as a management consultant to go to Princeton Theological Seminary in the 1970s, will go back to investigating other cases. He said there's a man in a Texas prison who might be innocent and someone who has spent 22 years in a California prison for a murder he says he didn't commit.

So far, McCloskey's nonprofit group, Centurion Ministries, has helped clear 36 inmates. In five other cases, including Coleman's, the group's work confirmed guilt. He said he feels betrayed by Coleman, but he is glad to finally know the truth.

"People ask me if I'm mad at Roger. That might develop, but it hasn't yet," McCloskey said. "We all get fooled by somebody. We have to face up, admit that and not hide."

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