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Burden of Proof
Jim McCloskey desperately wanted to save Roger Coleman from the electric chair. Maybe a little too desperately

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.

Each came to believe in Coleman's innocence. And each worked hard to help him prove his case. Between them, McCloskey and Behan made more than a dozen trips to Grundy, the coal-mining town in southwest Virginia where the murder took place, interviewing dozens of people. They concluded that Coleman had been framed by police and prosecutors, defended by incompetent lawyers and condemned to death by a small-town jury bent upon vengeance. They pushed for a new blood test of the evidence, and when the test implicated Coleman as the killer, they sought to discredit their own expert. And they accused a local man of being the "real killer," a claim they stuck with even after they learned of information indicating he had the wrong blood type.

When their efforts to get a stay of execution failed, they conducted a high-profile media campaign to compel then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to commute, or at least delay, the sentence. In the weeks before Coleman was put to death, his picture was on the cover of Time magazine ("This Man Might Be Innocent. This Man Is Due to Die"). He was interviewed from death row on "Larry King Live," the "Today" show, "Primetime Live," "Good Morning America" and "The Phil Donahue Show."

Opponents of the death penalty also seized on the case, staging vigils outside the governor's mansion in Richmond and the Greensville Correctional Center, where the execution was due to take place. Pope John Paul II made a public plea for mercy, and Mother Teresa personally phoned the governor's chief counsel. What started out as a shocking crime in a remote corner of Virginia became an international cause celebre.

"The anti-death penalty movement has never had much in the way of sympathetic visuals or symbols," says Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. "Other movements have trees and whales, positive images. Well, an innocent person is a positive image."

Back in Grundy, a scrappy community of 1,500 in the heart of Appalachia, many people were appalled. They viewed Coleman's supporters as a powerful group of lawyers, activists and journalists who were blinded by their loathing of the death penalty and taken in by a clever psychopath. "They were trying to build this case for Roger's innocence, and they didn't care who they threw to the dogs," says Pat Hatfield, the victim of an earlier incident, in which Coleman had exposed himself and masturbated in front of her at the public library. "It didn't matter whose life was destroyed as long as they could save Roger."

Two years after Coleman's execution, Arnold & Porter paid a substantial sum to settle a libel claim by the man it had identified as the "real killer." After that, Behan and the firm stopped commenting publicly on the case. They declined to discuss it for this article, except for a brief statement issued by the firm: "We complied with our professional responsibility and stand by our representation of Roger Coleman."

Jim McCloskey has taken a much different approach. Within hours of the DNA test results in January, he told a press conference that he was wrong and that Roger Coleman had betrayed his trust. Like a patient determined to take his medicine, he answered every question, proclaimed the DNA result a victory for the truth -- "even though this particular truth feels like a kick in the stomach." And he spent hours with a reporter going over the case, sifting the clues, acknowledging errors of judgment.

He concedes that someone looking in from the outside, with the benefit of hindsight, would ask: "How in the hell did McCloskey ever believe that Coleman was innocent, given what we know today?"

"I keep asking myself: Where did I go wrong? What did I miss?" And so he begins to go over it all again, starting with the night nearly 25 years ago when a young woman was brutally raped and murdered.

THEY WERE HIGH SCHOOL SWEETHEARTS, Brad McCoy and Wanda Faye Thompson, married after his graduation from Grundy Senior High in 1978, when he was 18 and she was 16. He got a job as a United Coal parts clerk, while she dropped out of school and stayed at home. Brad says his wife "was a good-hearted person. Just very quiet, considerate of others." They rented a small house amid Grundy's hills and hollows, across Slate Creek from the main highway.

On the night of March 10, 1981, Brad came home from the swing shift shortly after 11 to find Wanda's body on the bedroom floor in a pool of warm blood. She had been stabbed twice in the chest, and her throat had been slashed with such force that she was nearly decapitated. She was 19 years old.

Investigators quickly focused on Roger Coleman, 22, a bright but troubled young man who was married to Wanda's 16-year-old sister and worked at the TJ&M Coal Co. mine up on Looney's Creek. Raised mostly by his grandparents and his uncle after his parents separated, Coleman first got in trouble with the authorities for making obscene phone calls as a teenager. Just before graduating from high school in 1977, he was accused of attempting to rape a local schoolteacher. She testified that he gained entry to her home, forced her to tie up her terrified 6-year-old daughter and threatened her with a gun before she was able to escape. He denied the charge, and his high school principal testified that he had seen Coleman at school at the time of the crime. But the jury believed the victim -- Coleman served 20 months in prison. Then, two months before the murder, there was the library incident. All of that, plus Coleman's family ties to Wanda, led police to his door.

At first, Brad McCoy didn't believe it. He had played sandlot baseball with his brother-in-law and believed Roger had been wrongly accused in the rape case. And there was no bad blood between Roger and Wanda -- she had doted on her little sister and treated Roger like family. Roger had even served as a pallbearer at her funeral. But police said the evidence was persuasive, and Brad quickly came to accept that Coleman was a cold-blooded killer.

The trial opened on March 15, 1982. At a gas station next to the courthouse, someone posted a sign "Time to Bring Back the Hanging Tree." The defense team -- two local lawyers, neither of whom had ever tried a major criminal case -- asked for a change of venue. But presiding Judge Nicholas Persin ruled Coleman could get a fair trial in Grundy.

The prosecution's case was built upon circumstantial evidence -- there were no witnesses to the crime. Brad McCoy testified that Wanda was a timid and anxious person who would have opened her front door at night only to a man she knew and trusted, such as her brother-in-law. The prosecution's forensics expert said three small spots of blood on Coleman's dungarees matched Wanda's blood type, and that two pubic hairs found on her body had similar characteristics to his. The state's serologist said the rapist's semen contained traces of type B blood -- the same as Coleman's and 10 percent of the male population. The pants Coleman handed over to investigators the day after the murder were wet on the bottom 10 inches of each leg. Prosecutors theorized that Coleman had parked his pickup truck across Slate Creek from the McCoy house, committed the deed and then fled across the shallow stream to avoid being seen by neighbors. And they heard from a cellmate, who said Coleman had confessed the crime to him.

Coleman claimed he had an alibi for the time of the murder. After learning that his evening shift had been canceled, he had stopped to shoot the breeze with his good friend Phillip VanDyke, then had gone to a nearby trailer park to pick up an eight-track Supertramp tape he had left at Sandra and Scott Stiltner's place. After that, he said, he went to a public bathhouse in town to shower, as miners customarily did, and change into clean clothes. There simply wasn't time, he insisted, for him to have pulled up near Slate Creek, made his way to Wanda McCoy's house, and raped and killed her before Brad McCoy got home. VanDyke corroborated his story, saying the two men parted company at about 10:30. But Sandra Stiltner testified that Coleman had come and gone from her place at about 10:20, leaving a 45-minute window -- just long enough for a rapist-killer in a hurry, according to the prosecution.

"Bear in mind rapists are women haters, not women lovers," says Thomas Scott, one of the prosecutors. "He didn't go there to engage in foreplay; he went there to kill her. It could have easily occurred in 10 minutes or less."

The trial started on a Monday morning and ended on a Thursday afternoon. The jurors took 3 hours 30 minutes that evening to find Coleman guilty. The next day, they decided on the death penalty.

Judge Persin had never sentenced a man to die before. "I hated it," he recalls. "I knew what I had to do, and it bothered me so much I hardly slept that night." But given the evidence and Coleman's history, the judge says, he believes the verdict and the penalty were correct.

At his sentencing hearing, Coleman told the court he didn't much care whether he lived or died. His wife had filed for divorce. "Last night when the verdict of guilty came back, I lost the only thing that ever meant anything to me, my freedom, my life and my wife, whom I love very much. At this point, the death penalty or life, it doesn't matter. It's up to the Lord now, anyway."

Once he got to death row, however, Roger Coleman changed his mind.

SITTING AT THE KITCHEN TABLE in her small Charlottesville townhouse, Marie Deans smiles softly, recalling the first time she met Coleman on death row. "He was really feeling sorry for himself. You know: 'My life was good, and everything was fine, and now I'm in this situation.' " He told her he was considering dropping his appeal. She listened for a while before losing patience. "Look, Roger," she recalls telling him. "If you're really innocent, I'd think you would want to get out of here rather than be executed."

"He just sat there for a few minutes, and then he got this little grin on his face, and he said, 'Okay, I want to work with you.'"

Deans became involved in prison reform after her mother-in-law was murdered in 1972 by an escaped convict. She and her grieving husband asked themselves why so many people came out of prison even more violent and antisocial than when they went in. The couple started doing volunteer work with inmates, and, when she moved from her native South Carolina to Richmond in early 1983, she opened the Virginia Coalition of Jails and Prisons. She quickly discovered that the state's death row inmates were among the most neglected, and she began counseling them. She hooked them up with lawyers and made sure they filed their appeals. She became fiercely dedicated to one goal: keeping them alive.

From the start, Coleman intrigued her. "He was very bright; he read all the time -- science books and science fiction were his favorites." They talked once a week on the phone, and she saw him every six weeks or so when she visited the row. She grew to hold him in such high regard that she put him on the board of her organization.

For Deans, Coleman's guilt or innocence wasn't primary. She worked with plenty of men she knew were guilty. But he was different: quiet, brainy, direct. He told her about his dreams, including one in which he was strapped to the electric chair and she was holding him by his toe, pulling him away from death.

Deans never bought most of the pathetic "I was framed" stories she heard from inmates. But she came to believe that Coleman was either innocent or had no memory of committing the murder. "I have worked with psychopaths, and they're sort of obvious," says Deans. "They're unable to be in touch with their own consciences, but they are able to be in touch with what moves you and to feed you that." Roger, she says, was never smooth or slick, never seemed to be performing for her benefit. "I just did not get the sense that he thought he could pull the wool over my eyes, or that he was trying to."

He made a similar impression on Sharon Paul, a University of Virginia sophomore who responded to his ad in a student newspaper: "Thirteen steps from eternity. Death Row prisoner seeks sincere people to correspond with and for possible visits." He described himself and asked for photos, but added: "Sincerity is what counts."

"I was captured by the vulnerability: 'Here's me, and all I want is someone to write to me,' " Paul recalls. "It was letting the world see his loneliness. I guess I admired that honesty and openness from the very start."

She wrote to him, and within days he wrote back, describing his life in Grundy and on death row. He offered to answer any questions she had about the crime. "For what it's worth, I didn't do it," he told her.

He was charming and solicitous. He insisted on buying her gifts, even though he had little money. He sent her clippings from mail-order catalogues, asked her to send back multiple selections to ensure he chose something she liked that would still be a surprise. He made her cassette tapes of love songs he recorded off the radio. She recalls that he was devastated by the 1986 Challenger explosion. If they ever had a daughter, he wanted to name her after Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who died during the disaster.

They seldom talked of the future. "I was in denial of the possibility of anything other than his release," says Paul. "Roger, on the other hand, was much more realistic. He called himself an optimistic pessimist -- he hoped for the best but expected the worst."

Coleman needed a new lawyer to launch his appeal, and Deans hooked him up with Arnold & Porter, which takes great pride in doing pro bono work. The firm's lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus -- a standard legal tool of prisoners seeking judicial review. When they lost in circuit court, the lawyers went to the Virginia Supreme Court, which rejected their appeal on the grounds that it was filed one day late. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rejection by 6 to 3.

"This is a case about federalism," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for the majority, seemingly more concerned about state court prerogatives than the fact that Coleman's life was at stake.

The ruling became a rallying cry for opponents of capital punishment who saw it as a part of a campaign by the justices to streamline the appeals process and deliver condemned prisoners to the executioner more swiftly. But to cheat the electric chair, Roger Coleman needed to be more than just a cause. He needed new evidence -- and someone dedicated to finding it.

THE BACK WALL OF JIM MCCLOSKEY'S OFFICE IS HIS RÉSUMÉ. It holds a remarkable collection of photographs of the three dozen innocent people he has helped free from prison, most of them taken at the moment they emerged from behind bars.

Some of the faces are grim and frozen, as if all of the anger from years of incarceration has taken command of their features and won't let go. Others are locked in wide loopy smiles with glazed eyes that betray their amazement. And there in almost every photo, eyes glistening, is McCloskey.

He grew up outside Philadelphia, graduated from Bucknell University, joined the Navy, then became a management consultant. A lifelong bachelor, he woke up one day in 1979 at age 37, looked closely at himself and didn't much care for what he saw. "My life was like a rainbow -- it might have looked pretty, but it was vapor," McCloskey recalls. "I wanted to lead what I felt to be an authentic life. I wanted to get to the real stuff of the world."

He quit his job, entered a theological seminary in New Jersey and made plans to become a minister. Then, in his second year, he began doing field work as a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison. There he met an inmate named Jorge "Chiefie" de los Santos, who was serving life for a murder he claimed he had not committed. De los Santos was so adamant that McCloskey agreed to read the trial transcript. He found that de los Santos's conviction had hinged largely on an alleged confession he made to a fellow inmate. McCloskey tracked down the inmate and got him to admit he had lied. In the summer of 1983, de los Santos won his freedom, and McCloskey found his calling. "I felt this is what God has ordained for me to do," he says. "Chiefie would say I saved his life. But he saved mine."

Centurion Ministries started out as a one-man shop that McCloskey operated from his living room. It now boasts five full-time and four part-time employees, and a $1 million annual budget, financed by foundations and private donors. From the start, innocence was the watchword. McCloskey wasn't interested in whether someone got a fair trial -- he says plenty of guilty defendants get a less than perfect one. "Innocence came to me -- I didn't go seeking it. And being a lay person, not a lawyer, that's all I was interested in."

He was shocked to discover that some police and prosecutors routinely lied or cut corners to make their cases. "I've come to see the criminal justice system as fraught with flaws and frailties."

Yet he sometimes engages in his own sleight of hand, wearing a priest's collar in the field, knowing that it helps get people to talk. "I'm a graduate of the Princeton Theological Seminary, but I'm not an ordained person. I introduce myself as Jim McCloskey, not as Reverend or Father," he says.

McCloskey and his team have never lacked for work. Their list of successes includes Clarence Brandley, freed after 10 years on death row in Texas for murder after Centurion found an eyewitness who identified the real killers; David Milgaard, who spent 23 years in a Canadian prison for murder and rape until DNA testing confirmed his innocence; and Clarence Chance and Benny Powell, imprisoned for more than 17 years for the murder of a Los Angeles deputy sheriff until Centurion proved that investigators had coerced witnesses into false testimony. Not every case has been a triumph. McCloskey reckons that four of the inmates his group has worked for turned out to have been guilty. In two of those cases, DNA testing proved the prisoners' guilt. In the other two, the prisoners' accounts unraveled when McCloskey re-interviewed witnesses. He immediately dropped each case, even if he had worked on it for several years.

When Coleman contacted Centurion in 1987, McCloskey read the trial transcript, then spent three hours talking to Coleman. "We went through everything: what he did that night and why, who he encountered." He told McCloskey about The Choice Is Yours, a program that Coleman had organized with help from the Catholic Diocese of Richmond in which he lectured potential young offenders about the price of crime and the miseries of prison.

"He was very calm, collected, rational, didn't come off as slick at all. He wasn't a salesman. He didn't try to persuade me. But he answered whatever questions I had." McCloskey was impressed, and he trusted his instincts. "I walked away believing he was not the kind of person who would commit such a brutal murder."

McCloskey drove straight from the prison to Grundy, where he spent nearly a month investigating the case. He persuaded Judge Persin to let him examine the evidence file. He interviewed those who had seen Coleman that night, and he reenacted the timeline.

He discovered that the jury had never heard about Phillip VanDyke's timecard, which he punched at 10:41 on the night of the murder -- just minutes, VanDyke said, after he had finished chatting with Coleman. He noted that the Stiltners had originally told investigators that Coleman had visited sometime between 10 and 10:30 that night. Only when Sandra Stiltner testified in court did she nail the time as exactly 10:20. McCloskey believed VanDyke and his timecard rather than Stiltner's testimony. And there were other nagging details: Why did Wanda McCoy have dirt on her hands and arms? What about the medical examiner's conclusion that she had been sodomized as well as raped, a fact the jury never heard? How could one attacker have committed both acts within the space of a few minutes?

In McCloskey's view, the police had jumped on the first plausible suspect, ignoring other possibilities. "A crime of this nature is very rare, and it just inflames the passions and prejudices of everybody in a community. And that was my view of what happened with Roger: They shoehorned him into this conviction."

On his way back to Princeton, McCloskey stopped in Washington to see Coleman's lawyers at Arnold & Porter. The easiest way to prove Coleman's innocence, he told them, was to have the blood and sperm samples from the victim re-tested using newly developed DNA techniques. But the lawyers were not interested. They said the judge was unlikely to order a test and, in any event, samples that had been lying around in an unprotected evidence box for eight years were unlikely to yield a definitive result. But the real surprise was that Coleman himself was not interested in DNA testing. He told McCloskey that after his arrest he had had sex in jail with a female guard, and he feared the authorities had planted his semen from that encounter as evidence. McCloskey dismissed Coleman's fears as classic jailhouse paranoia, "but I also felt a certain amount of discomfort in my mind as to why he wasn't eager for DNA testing."

Enough discomfort that McCloskey says he dropped out of the Coleman case for nearly a year and concentrated on other, more promising clients. Then in 1990, he found a reason to get back into it.

TALL, SLIM AND DEEPLY EARNEST, Kathleen Behan, came to Arnold & Porter in July 1990 as a 28-year-old legal associate with an abiding hostility toward the death penalty. One of the first cases she was handed was Roger Coleman's appeal.

She went down to Mecklenburg Correctional Center in southern Virginia to meet her client and was struck by Coleman's sincerity and mastery of the details of his case. Then she met with McCloskey, who was immediately impressed with her. "She was the kind of lawyer I love to work with -- as much fact-driven as law-driven," he recalls. "She realized pretty fast that if Roger was going to be freed we needed to develop new evidence."

Kitty Behan reversed the firm's previous position and agreed to DNA testing. Judge Persin consented to having the evidence shipped to Edward Blake of Forensic Science Associates in California, one of the pioneers in the newly developing field.

Coleman's legal team got another potential break after Behan placed an ad in the Virginia Mountaineer newspaper seeking new leads in the case. On the day it ran, Arnold & Porter fielded a phone call from Teresa Horn, a 22-year-old woman who claimed that an unemployed miner named Bobby Donnie Ramey had attempted to sexually assault her one night in 1987 at a friend's house. When she resisted, she said, Ramey warned her that he would do to her the same thing he had "done to that woman on Slate Creek."

Ramey and his family lived just 50 yards uphill from Wanda McCoy's house. Over the years Ramey, a high school dropout, had had a number of scrapes with the law, ranging from fishing without a license to assaulting a police officer. His nickname was "Trouble."

But the DNA result that came back in November 1990 was far from helpful to the defense. Blake had had to work from an extremely limited sample -- the cotton swab of semen from the victim had disappeared from the evidence bag, and he was forced to scrape DNA samples from the stick it had been attached to. Nonetheless, he found enough to determine there were two sets of sperm in the victim. One presumably came from Brad McCoy, who testified he had had sex with his wife two nights before the murder. Blake narrowed down the other to approximately 2 percent of the population, including Coleman. The state of Virginia's experts would later argue that the proportion of men who had both type B blood and the DNA match was even narrower -- 0.2 percent.

McCloskey remembers exactly where he was when he heard the news: at a pay phone in Lancaster, Pa., where he was working on another case. "My first thought was, 'Son of a bitch, the guy did it.' "

But Behan was undaunted. She found other experts who claimed that the mixed sperm sample made an accurate DNA reading impossible, and who also challenged the studies on which the percentages were based. And she and McCloskey seized on another possibility -- that the second sample of sperm came not from Brad McCoy but from a second rapist. Since even the police accepted that Coleman was alone that night, the two-attackers thesis, if proved, could have exonerated him. McCloskey put his doubts aside, and he and Behan went back to work.

Blake says that this was the moment when Coleman's defenders lost their ethical bearings. Fixated on Coleman's innocence, they ignored or discredited evidence that pointed to his guilt: "Somewhere along the way these people who were supposed to be in the fact-finding business abandoned their responsibility to facts and truth, and started operating on belief."

McCloskey insists he went where the facts led him. And, by late 1990, the facts were leading him to Donnie Ramey's door.

MCCLOSKEY TAKES A FADING POLAROID FROM A STACK: "This is Wanda's house, and this is the Ramey home. There's a perfect way to get down the hill, kill her and get back up without being seen."

McCloskey and Behan eventually found three other women who claimed to have been attacked by Donnie Ramey. Horn and two of the women gave affidavits. The day after Horn gave an interview to a Roanoke television station repeating her allegations, she died of a drug overdose. Police found no evidence of foul play, but McCloskey was suspicious.

"I interviewed each of these women, I was with them in their living rooms, I saw how frightened they were," he says.

McCloskey and Behan also interviewed Keester Shortridge, a neighbor of Ramey's, who claimed he had found a plastic bag containing clothes and bloody sheets in the back of his pickup truck on the day after the murder. Shortridge said he had dumped the bag in a ravine after police expressed no interest in examining the contents. Behan even rented a backhoe to dig up the evidence from the spot. All she found was a small patch of dirty sheet whose contents were too degraded to be analyzed. Nonetheless, in October 1991, Behan filed a petition with Judge Persin citing newly discovered evidence suggesting that Ramey was Wanda McCoy's killer. In its response, the state attorney general's office poked holes in Behan's claim. Miners are required to provide their blood type in case of accident, and Ramey's employment card identified his as type A, whereas Wanda McCoy's rapist's was type B. Also, Teresa Horn was a known drug user who had had a child out of wedlock and wasn't sure who the father was. Neither she nor Ramey's other purported victims had ever filed charges nor told the police of their suspicions.

"I had serious problems with that woman's credibility," says Tommy Scott, the former prosecutor. "But Arnold & Porter and Jim McCloskey and the national media bought into it hook, line and sinker."

While McCloskey was lining up Donnie Ramey's alleged victims, he did not interview Roger Coleman's surviving victims. Brenda Ratliff, the schoolteacher who had accused Coleman of attempted rape in 1977, refused to talk to him. And he did not attempt to speak with the two librarians who had been confronted by Coleman in January 1981, two months before the murder. By the time he heard about them, he says, he was so immersed in a last-gasp search for new evidence of Coleman's innocence that he didn't have time. And because Coleman wasn't charged with the library incident until after his murder arrest, McCloskey assumed the librarians hadn't identified him until police told them he was a suspected killer; he decided their testimony was unreliable.

Had he talked to Pat Hatfield, the chief librarian, he might have concluded differently.

Hatfield and Jean Gilbert were about to close up on a stormy Monday evening when a young man in a navy blue jacket and dark pants came through the front door. "He had his pants unzipped, and he was masturbating," Hatfield recalls. "He got all the way up to about five feet from the front desk. By then, I had actually looked at him in the face. And that's what really scared me because he had this dead look in his eyes. A cold dead stare. Never blinked. And then he ejaculated on the floor and on the desk. He never said one word to me . . . But what I saw in his eyes, it was so scary. It was like a dead soul."

The man ran out the door, and Gilbert called the police. At an investigator's suggestion, Hatfield and Gilbert pored through old high school yearbooks, and within days they had each identified Roger Coleman. But police persuaded them not to file charges. "I told them it was a pretty serious case, but they told me it's not a big deal, and at the most he'd get a $30 fine. And I knew better, but I let them talk me into it."

Two months later she got a phone call from her mother, "She said, 'Pat, there's been a girl murdered, and it's Roger Coleman's sister-in-law.' And I tell you, I think the blood just left my body because I knew, I knew then."

Hatfield takes out a letter. It's a firm but polite note from Coleman, written from death row six years later. He writes that he's tired of being accused of the library incident. He's got an alibi for that evening, and he accuses another local man who supposedly looks like him. He signs off, "Sincerely, Roger Coleman." What Coleman didn't know is that Pat Hatfield had tutored the other man in high school and knew it wasn't him. "Just an outrageous lie," she says.

In December 1991, Judge Persin dismissed Behan's petition implicating Ramey. Two months later, he set Coleman's execution date for May 20.

"IS IT DIFFICULT TO BE OPTIMISTIC?" Bryant Gumbel asked Coleman on the "Today" show, 15 days before the execution date.

With six days to go, Larry King wanted to know: "How do you feel? Are you bitter? Angry?"

Five days later, Phil Donahue went straight to the point: "Wow. You've 30 hours left to live."

Having failed in the legal process, Jim McCloskey and Kitty Behan turned to the court of public opinion. They sent out press kits to dozens of publications, eliciting a parade of newspaper and magazine stories that tended to portray Coleman as an innocent victim and the citizens of Grundy as hillbillies run amok.

In a piece headlined "Hung on a Technicality," Newsweek portrayed a "small, sooted town" from which had "spun the kind of twisted tale that gives Southern Gothic a good name." As for the original trial, "the courthouse should have had a big top." The Washington Post reported that the crime had "whipped this Appalachian town of 1,500 into a frenzy of hatred and suspicion," and quoted Coleman's claim that "every minute of my time that night was accounted for." The Los Angeles Times reported that "startling new evidence has emerged" in the form of the Ramey allegation and Teresa Horn's untimely death, but neglected to mention Blake's DNA test implicating Coleman.

Then came the television cameras. Coleman made excellent, even mesmerizing TV, as he patiently explained the timeline and the witness statements, analyzed the DNA evidence and coolly dissected his own emotions.

"There's a lot of anger," he told Larry King. "There's a lot of bitterness, and a lot of frustration." During his first years of incarceration, he said, "I had a tremendous amount of hate, and it was consuming me. I had to deal with it, and I did a pretty good job of getting a handle on it . . . But now I'm six days away from being executed, and those feelings are back, and they're multiplied by a factor of 10."

Tom Scott and fellow prosecutor Michael McGlothlin, Pat Hatfield, Jean Gilbert, Brad McCoy and Brenda Ratliff, the woman whom Coleman had attempted to rape in 1977, all journeyed to Richmond to support Coleman's execution. "We tried to set the story straight, but no one ever really listened to us," McCoy recalls. The media had decided that Coleman was the victim. "No one ever really understood that Wanda was the real victim."

McCoy even consented to appear on "Today" to confront his former brother-in-law. Asked by Bryant Gumbel if he had anything to say to Coleman, Brad replied: "Yes, I would like to ask him why he did it, and I would also like to ask him to admit it."

Coleman for once seemed to lose his cool. "I did not kill Wanda, Brad! I didn't have anything to do with it! And if you'd open your eyes and look at the evidence we have now, evidence that the state has withheld . . . I mean, you just listened to what they've said, and you bought their theory, and you just closed your mind to everything that we've uncovered."

Behan and her associates at Arnold & Porter wrote to dozens of celebrities seeking their support, and the firm issued press statements claiming to have uncovered "the real killer." One release claimed "the murderer still lives in Grundy and has continued attacking women ever since."

Behan, who was battling the disease lupus at the same time she was struggling to save Coleman's life, felt crushed by an enormous sense of responsibility. "I'm the only person that stands between Roger and the electric chair," she later told author John C. Tucker. "And, you know, I'm a pathetic substitute for Superman, which is the only person who can save this guy."

Marie Deans says she was uncomfortable with the defense team's strategy. She recalls participating alongside McCloskey at a media briefing in which he pointed the finger at Ramey. "Jim said some things that were just shocking to me, because we didn't have any proof," she says.

If the media were convinced, the courts were not. "After a review of the alleged 'new evidence,' " declared a federal judge in dismissing Coleman's final appeal eight days before the execution date, "this court finds the case against Coleman as strong or stronger than the evidence adduced at trial."

Behan and McCloskey made a last-ditch effort to persuade Gov. Wilder to intervene. The governor's office received more than 6,000 messages, 95 percent of which favored Coleman. McCloskey and Behan were elated when Time put Coleman on the cover, figuring the governor would have no choice but to delay the execution. But Wilder, a proud and prickly man who resented the pressure, wasn't about to cave. Instead he offered Coleman the chance to take a polygraph.

The defense attorneys were outraged by the gesture. They believed it was unfair to compel a condemned man to take a test under such stressful circumstances. But in the end they felt they had no choice. Coleman was helicoptered to state police headquarters on the morning of execution day. He emerged in manacles, his arms lifted above his face to shade his eyes from the harsh sunlight, shuffling slowly through the door with armed state troopers on either side. None of his lawyers or friends was allowed to attend. Later in the day, Wilder's office announced Coleman had failed.

That evening, McCloskey and Behan sat on the concrete floor next to Coleman's cell; they were on one side of the bars, Coleman on the other. For his last meal, he requested a Pizza Hut pizza, fudge cookies and Sprite. When it arrived, the pizza was cold and the Sprite warm. Still, Coleman wolfed it down.

"He showed no sign of fear, even anxiety," McCloskey recalls. "It was surreal. Here we are sitting with a man we all know is about to die, and we're talking about everyday life. We were all floating."

Coleman told McCloskey he saw a positive side to his ordeal. "He said, 'If I hadn't been wrongly convicted, I would be a nobody from Grundy for my entire life. And here I am, I've met Sharon, she means the world to me, I'm famous, my face is on Time magazine. I'm a somebody.' "

The guards said it was time to go. McCloskey met Coleman's eyes and solemnly promised to prove his innocence. Then he and Behan left Coleman with the death row chaplain. Neither McCloskey nor Behan witnessed the execution.

One of the journalists who did, Kathy Still of the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier, vividly recalls Coleman entering the execution chamber. He was a few steps ahead of the chaplain and the guards, and he walked directly to the electric chair. Then he rapidly read his last words, which he had written on a paper towel, proclaiming his innocence and declaring his love for Sharon. "He held his head up the whole time," Still recalls.

AFTER THE EXECUTION, a devastated McCloskey spent a week at a religious retreat. "I reflected, and I grieved and came out of that with no answers at all." He eased the pain by plunging into other cases.

Donnie Ramey filed a libel suit against Arnold & Porter, Behan and Deans for $5 million that the firm eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. But not before the defense lawyers deposed Ramey, who denied he had attacked any of the women who accused him of sexual misconduct. He also vehemently denied that he had anything to do with Wanda McCoy's murder and rape or that he had ever claimed otherwise.

"We weren't saying he was a model citizen," says Charles H. Smith III, Ramey's attorney. "But he wasn't a rapist and a murderer. They had no justification for the claim."

Behan, who argued that her accusations against Ramey were "well-founded and reasonable," adamantly opposed the settlement. Still, she made partner at the firm and became one of its most influential rainmakers. In 1998, she made Washingtonian magazine's list of "Young Guns" -- top lawyers under 40.

The libel suit dried up funding for Marie Deans's small organization, and she was forced to close it down in 1993. Inmates on Virginia's death row lost their guardian angel. Deans says that before his execution Coleman had elicited a promise that Arnold & Porter would donate funds to her group for the many hours she put in on his behalf. But when the time came, "I got a call from Kitty to say they had decided to put that money somewhere else."

Looking back, Deans says she believes McCloskey and Behan did their best for Coleman but shouldn't have accused Ramey without solid proof. "I don't blame Kitty. She was young and had never done one of these before, and she worked very hard. But I didn't like the spin. I felt used, I guess."

For eight years, McCloskey did little to redeem his pledge to Roger Coleman. It was, he says, just too painful, and he was immersed in other work. But, with DNA testing becoming more sophisticated, he decided it was time to seek a re-testing of the evidence. Then-Gov. Warner broke precedent by deciding to authorize the test. "I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence," he said in a statement.

By then, most of the evidence in the Coleman case had been lost or destroyed. But Edward Blake, the California forensics expert, had adamantly refused to return to Virginia authorities the DNA extract from his 1990 test -- less than a drop of fluid in a thimble-size microfuge tube. He agreed to provide the material to the Toronto crime lab.

Many activists in the anti-death penalty movement enthusiastically embraced the re-testing effort. Here was a chance for the Holy Grail: proof from a test tube that an innocent person had been executed. But others, citing Blake's earlier results, were wary. "We already knew the odds were 49 out of 50 that he was guilty," says David Bruck, director of the Virginia Capital Case Clearinghouse at Washington and Lee University. "I warned people to be cautious."

McCloskey was not unaware that a finding of innocence could strike a huge blow to the death penalty. But he says this was not his motive. "We're part of no movement except ourselves and those we serve. I believed in Roger Coleman, I made a promise to Roger Coleman, spent our precious resources on him. I wanted the truth to be known."

IT'S TWO MONTHS AFTER THE FINDINGS WERE ANNOUNCED, and McCloskey has finally removed from his wall the framed Time cover of Coleman in chains. Gone as well is a sheet of drawing paper with the handwritten inscription: "This certificate is awarded to Jim McCloskey in recognition for being the best darn ivestigator [sic] in the whole US of A! [signed] Roger K. Coleman, Chairman, Selection Committee."

"The last file boxes are going into storage," says McCloskey. "We've erased him from our Web site and our brochure."

Each of Coleman's closest supporters had expected the test results to exonerate him, and each has had to deal with the news of his guilt. Marie Deans and Sharon Paul say they do not feel betrayed. "I have to believe something," says Paul, "and what I believe is, if Roger committed the crime, he had no memory of it, and that's why he was able to be such a strong advocate for his own innocence right until the end."

Still, the result has made her wonder about Jim McCloskey and Kitty Behan. "I just can't believe they were so wrong. I mean, these are people who do this for a living; they're not naive, they don't get duped. And that Roger, this little person from southwest Virginia, could have fooled them for so long -- that's the most difficult part for me to believe."

Behan has told friends that she still believes Coleman was innocent and that she doesn't accept the test findings. "This was a huge piece of Kitty Behan's life and how she sees herself," says author John C. Tucker, who wrote the 1997 book May God Have Mercy about the case. "It was not easy for anybody to find out that you were wrong. It's easy to try and rationalize these results."

Unlike Paul and Deans, McCloskey doesn't buy the theory that Coleman somehow had erased Wanda McCoy's murder from his memory, but he's not surprised that Coleman stuck to his claim of innocence even when sitting in the electric chair. "It was too late to tell the truth," says McCloskey. "What would all those who were near and dear to him think if he ever admitted that he did this? He couldn't allow that to happen. So he had to go down to the end drowning in the lies."

McCloskey points to photos of the 24 inmates whom Centurion is currently working to exonerate. At the top of the list is Walter Lomax, who has spent 38 years in Maryland's prison system in the killing of a night manager during a Baltimore grocery store robbery. There's Barry Beach, locked away in a Montana prison for 22 years in the killing of a young woman after police falsely claimed to have recorded his confession. And Timothy Howard, sentenced to death in 1977 for bank robbery and murder, and whom McCloskey recently helped win a verdict of "actual innocence" from a Columbus, Ohio, jury.

This is his work, his life and his answer, finally, to the Roger Coleman case. "I don't think I'll ever put the pieces together. I've tried, and I can't, and I'm just moving on."

Glenn Frankel is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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