Burden of Proof

By Glenn Frankel
Sunday, May 14, 2006

Jim McCloskey stands by the phone in a Richmond hotel room on this frosty January morning, waiting to fulfill a solemn pledge he made 14 years ago to a condemned man.

An hour before Roger Keith Coleman was executed for rape and murder, McCloskey had locked eyes with him through the bars of his cell a few yards from the electric chair and promised that someday he would prove Coleman's innocence. McCloskey is a lion of a man -- proud, powerful and self-assured -- but he emerged from death row that night in May 1992 looking drained and frail as he repeated his pledge before dozens of reporters and television cameras, and read out Coleman's last words:

"An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven, I hope Americans will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have."

An unordained Presbyterian minister and self-ordained seeker of truth, McCloskey runs a small nonprofit organization that investigates cases of prisoners who claim they were wrongly accused. Over the years, he and his dedicated band have freed 36 people, many of whom had spent decades behind bars for crimes they didn't commit. It was too late to free Roger Coleman --the electric chair has no reverse switch -- but not too late to prove his innocence. For sitting in a locked evidence freezer in a lab in California was less than a Q-Tip's worth of semen taken from the body of the dead woman.

McCloskey had petitioned Virginia Gov. Mark Warner to permit a new test of the sample's DNA. No sitting governor had ever agreed to allow DNA testing of an already executed man. And no one who has been executed since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976 has been proved definitively innocent.

Now, as he waits for the phone to ring with the DNA results, McCloskey is well aware that history is looking over his shoulder. He's rented a small conference room at the Berkeley Hotel in Richmond to receive the phone call from the crime lab and a larger room to hold a press conference afterward. He's even agreed to allow a crew from ABC's "Nightline" to be there to record his reaction to the news. He's written out two statements -- one in case Coleman is exonerated, the other in case he isn't. But McCloskey is confident he will need only the first. Finally, at 10:45 a.m. the call comes. "Jim, we have the results," says Ray Prime, director of the Center of Forensic Sciences in Toronto, one of the world's most highly regarded crime labs.

The "Nightline" camera captures the rest. "Uh-huh, he is the source," says McCloskey. "Uh-huh, one in 19 million." A heavy sigh. "Oh boy. All right. Bye."

He hangs up and turns to Paul Enzinna, the Washington attorney who helped him make his appeal for DNA testing. "He's guilty."

SIX WEEKS LATER, SITTING IN HIS ETERNALLY CLUTTERED OFFICE IN PRINCETON, N.J., Jim McCloskey is still perplexed. "I don't argue at all with the DNA results," he says, "but there are elements to this case that are still a mystery to me."

Part of the puzzle is the circumstances of the crime. McCloskey still sees nagging holes in the prosecution's case. Chief among them is the timeline: He can't figure out how Coleman had enough time to rape and murder his sister-in-law Wanda McCoy and still be seen in various places by various people that March evening in 1981. He still harbors strong suspicions about a neighbor of the murder victim whom he believes had the character, motive and opportunity to commit the crime.

And part of it is the convicted killer himself. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Roger Coleman had presented his case calmly and articulately, with logical explanations and apparent sincerity. He also was a model prisoner who founded a program to counsel young men in trouble. He convinced not only McCloskey, a self-taught and experienced investigator with a skeptical nose. He also won the admiration and affection of three strong, intelligent women.

Foremost among them was Kathleen Behan, an attorney with Arnold & Porter, the high-powered Washington law firm that pursued Coleman's legal appeal without fee for eight years. There was Marie Deans, who headed a small shoestring operation that counseled and comforted Virginia's death row inmates and who came to think of Coleman as a son. And Sharon Paul, a former elementary schoolteacher who as a college student started a pen-pal friendship with Coleman and who eventually fell in love with him.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company