Post Magazine: Burden of Proof
Monday, May 15, 2006; 12:00 PM
Even after Roger Coleman's execution, his advocates didn't stop believing in his innocence. The question is why.
Glenn Frankel -- whose story about the southwest Virginia murder case and the DNA test that removed doubt about the killer appeared in Sunday's
Glenn Frankel is a Magazine staff writer.
Glenn Frankel: This was the first story I've written since returning to the Post Magazine as a staff writer, and it was a fascinating experience. Even with 8,000 words, there was no way I could tell the whole tale or do justice to the many compelling people who agreed to talk to me about it. I look forward to your questions.
Front Royal, Va: My deceased grandparents were from Grundy, so this was a fascinating piece for me. To me, the most fascinating aspect is how Mr. Coleman could change from a brutal criminal into a charming, soft-spoken, articulate gentleman virually overnight. I remember seeing him on some of the TV shows you mentioned, and he impressed me with his (apparent) sincerity. I guess you really can't tell a book by its cover!
Glenn Frankel: In the weeks before his execution in 1992, Roger Coleman appeared on countless TV broadcasts to proclaim his innocence. I watched many of the videotapes, and he was articulate, careful and persuasive. This wasn't an overnight transformation. Coleman was 22 when he was arrested for his sister-in-law's murder and rape, and 33 when he was executed, and those who knew him best say he matured in prison and seemed to become a more sensitive and caring person. That may be part of the explanation.
Herndon, Va: This case has been bothering me for months and I read your story as soon as I saw it. In May of '92 I was one of the 6000+ people who called to urge Gov. Wilder to postpone Coleman's execution. Over the years I'd kind of forgotten about this case until January when I was sure Coleman would be exonorated by the latest DNA analysis. Surprising he was not and I began to wonder if there was another explanation. Has anyone considered the possibility that he might have had consensual sex with McCoy but someone else raped and murdered her? Or can that be totally discounted? I learned a lot from your article that was not in the media accounts of '92. So much is still unexplained. I am now much less certain of his possible innocence than I was in '92.
Glenn Frankel: Even Roger's most ardent supporters never contended that he had had consensual sex with Wanda McCoy, the woman who was raped and murdered. Roger himself never made any such claim---even after the orginial 1990 DNA tests indicated a strong probability that his sperm had been found in the victim. It's just not a possibility.
Windham, NH: What was the reaction of John C. Tucker to this news? Judging from the sole quote in your article, he may be taking the tack that he was just the storyteller relating the views of others. But any fair interpretation of May God Have Mercy is that it was a work of advocacy, extremely well-written, but still advocacy.
Glenn Frankel: The Tucker book, which was first published in 1997, was an important document that added support to those who believed in Coleman's innocence. I simply didn't have time in my piece to fairly address the controversy over the book. But I'm going to post John's comment, which addresses directly your question.
Lanexa, Va: Hi Glen - I want to congratulate you on a well written story that raises interesting questions about Coleman's state of mind and the psychological makeup that allowed him to so persistently maintain his innocenc. I do, however, strongly disagree with the suggestion or at least inference that Kitty Behan and Jim McCloskey were duped into believing he was innocent in the face of evidence which they should have realized clearly showed he was guilty. In my opinion that is simply not true - I looked at all the same evidence on both sides of the case that they looked at, and as I told you, as an experienced criminal lawyer I also concluded that it was at least more likely than not that Coleman was innocent - and I didn't know Coleman from Adam - my sole contact with him was five minutes on a telephone.
Glenn Frankel: This is John C. Tucker's comment.
madrid, spain: Great article. A lot of food for thought, particularly about the irresponsible and sensationalist role of the media in cases like this.
But also a chilling lesson that we can't always trust our instincts about people and that the best manipulators can get nearly anyone to do their bidding. I suspect that he was a serial killer in training who was thwarted. His careful planning, insistence of his innocence and gift for manipulation are truly chilling.
In the article you mention that there were two different mens' sperm found... Was the second sample definitively linked to the victim's husband? How was it ruled out that there were not two men involved in the crime?
Was there any past history between the victim and Roger Colman that would explain how and why he would choose her as his victim?
My heart goes out to her family and loved ones. I can't imagine how difficult this must have been for them.
Glenn Frankel: Many thanks for the compliment and for your insightful comments. To answer your questions:
1) Thomas Scott, who helped prosecute the case, told me that the second set of sperm was indeed tested to see if it belonged to Wanda McCoy's husband Brad, but that the result was inconclusive. Coleman's supporters, imcluding Jim McCloskey, are now wlling to concede that the second set most likely came from Brad, who testified that he and his wife had had sex two nights before the murder.
2) Roger bore no obvious animus to Wanda, who always treated him well, according to Brad and to Roger himself. My view is this act of rape and murder was a psychopathic act that can't be explained by simply determinng whether or not Roger was angry at Wanda.
Centennial, Wyo: Your story was very good, thank you. I mean no disrespect, but from a journalist's point of view why is the story of the murderer - most often it seems - the one that gets the most attention. Why were 8000 words not devoted to the murder victim, her family and their supporters? Why wasn't their story of coping with murder and loss more compelling? It -seems- the depraved members of our society are the ones who get all the attention. Thank you.
Glenn Frankel: I think you've raised a very important issue. I chose to write about the Coleman case because of the issues it raised about the legal system and DNA testing, and inevitably I came to focus on the public debate about the killer. But I was very much aware that I was in a real sense gliding over the victim and her family, and I feared I would be adding to their pain by simply exploring the subject again. I had an email exchange and a long phone conversation with Brad McCoy, the victim's husband, who was very responsive and who felt that the kind of piece I was writing was important at least as a corrective to some of the many media stories that had virtually presumed Roger was innocent or at least treated unfairly by the courts.
Arlington, Va: I was touched by the quote from Wanda's husband, that somehow the debate over Coleman's guilt made him into the victim and it was forgotten that Wanda was the real victim. This is what the controvesy over the death penalty does. Guilty or innocent - did Coleman deserve to die too?
Glenn Frankel: This is a question I didn't even begin to address. I'll publish a few more like it on both sides of the debate.
Kensington, Md: Tremendous piece on Coleman's apologists. It took courage to write, too, given how the mainstream media fawned all over this rapist-killer for years.
Two comments: 1--the magazine headline did not do the article justice. This is not about a killer's "charisma," but about anti-death penalty advocates willing to say and do ANYTHING to advance their political agenda.
2--It is most telling that McCloskey admits that he has purged all references to Coleman from his website. Right down the memory hole. That is why our little nonprofit is building a web archive of all the lies and distortions advanced by so many people who were trying to protect a serial sex offender and killer from facing justice. McCloskey and Behan may want to erase the truth, but our internet archive will live forever. Coming in June at throwawaythekey.org
You made one mistake in your article: burying the fact that Behan (fresh from winning a pardon for Marc Rich, according to her firm's website bio of her), STILL believes Coleman was innocent. That is bigger news than you gave it. I guess that blindness to reason and reality makes her a great advocate in our twisted legal system.
Michael ParanzinoPresident,Throw Away The Key
Glenn Frankel: A comment from someone on the pro-death penalty side.
Central Virginia: I am a lawyer who does criminal defense work. It is my observation that some of the nicest, most charming and engaging people committ terrible crimes. It is also my observation that if they repeat it often enough, some people begin to believe that they are innocent when in fact they are not.
It is not surprising to me that so many people got taken by this person, particularly when their politics made them want to believe him. Maybe it is just cynicism born of experience, but 99.99 percent of the time when I hear someone say they are innocent it has the distinct ring of "the dog ate my homework."
Believe it or not the system, at least as to guilt or innocence, gets it right in the vast majority of cases.
Glenn Frankel: Another viewpoint. All I would add is that Jim McCloskey was an experienced investigator who had several compelling reasons for thinking Roger Coleman was innocent.
Manassas, Va: This is more of a comment than a question: I remember reading of Coleman's execution in the Washington Post way back in May 1992, and I came away from that article feeling bad for the man. Looking back, the article had an air of portraying Coleman as an innocent man who was indeed the victim of 'Hillbilly Justice'. That article apparently left such a mark on me that as soon as I saw his picture this morning on washingtonpost.com, I knew who it was...and read your fabulous article. Thank you for setting the record straight. Apparently, one cannot run from the long-arm of the law, nor from the Washington Post.
Glenn Frankel: All I can plead here is the sin of imperfection. I've been a journalist for 33 years and I'd hate to tell you how many times I've gotten things wrong. Whether you're a reporter, a politician or a parent, it's best to admit you're human, own up to your mistakes and correct them when you can.
Arlington, Va: I think it's really easy to see what happened. Colemans supporters belief system was based on supposition, rumor, innuendo and grounded, if that term could be used, in opposition to the death penalty. Like any group of true believers, they were drinking their own bathwater and seeing what they wanted to see. Witness the lawyer who hasn't changed her blief in his innocence even when confronted with objective evidence to the contrary.
Glenn Frankel: One reader's conclusion.
Bristow, Va: Did Kitty Behan refuse an interview with you? Do you feel her continued belief in Coleman's innocence is disingenuous?
Glenn Frankel: Kathleen Behan was just about the only major figure in this story who would not agree to an interview. I know from talking to friends of hers that she still harbors strong feelings about Roger's innocence, but I won't speculate on her motives or reasons.
Washington, DC: How much of the assumption of innocence was that the cops, prosecutor and jury in West Virginia must be a bunch of ignorant rednecks and therefore could not tell who was innocent or not? I frequently have the feeling while reading anti-death penalty opinion pieces that that underlies a lot of the opposition.
Glenn Frankel: I know that many folks in Grundy (Virginia, not West Virginia) believe sterotyoing and prejudice were a factor at least in the media portrayals of the case. As the judge in the case told me, "They didn't think we had the good sense to get out of the rain," let alone conduct a fair trial.
Falls Church, Va: I was astonished that the lawyer defending Coleman would name someone else as the "real killer." Seems like a really dangerous thing to do unless you have proof. I'm glad to see the "suspect" sued and got a settlement. But I was surprised the Arnold & Porter lawyer kept her job after doing that, even made partner.
Glenn Frankel: Any good defense lawyer wll tell you it's always good to come up with another potential suspect whom police may have overlooked. Coleman's supporters believed they had enough evidence---in the form of affidavits from women who said they'd been attacked and various statements---to justify pointing the finger at another man. Arnold & Porter has always insisted its lawyers did a proper job in the case.
Hyattsville, Md: Just a comment on a well-done article. The Coleman execution had a big impact on my views of the death penalty in America, and started me turning against it (it took about ten years!) I too was shocked to learn the results of the DNA evidence, but I still don't believe in the death penalty. Thank you for your excellent work on this piece.
Glenn Frankel: You're welcome. Thanks for the kind words.
Georgetown, Washington, D.C.: Did you find any contrition, regret or chagrin among any of the high-profile media figures who touted the case so fervently? It seems clear that there was a "miscarriage of media" here as well. But do any of the reporters, editors, TV "journalists," or, especially, the Washington Post have anything to say about their role in this troubling story?
Glenn Frankel: I think the media moved on rather quickly, which was one reason why I thought it was important to revisit the case.
Beltway insider: I'm not surprised, but nonetheless disgusted, by the lawyer-bashing of some of the chatters. Coleman's attorneys had an ethical duty to represent their client to the best of their ability. It is not their job to weigh evidence or cast doubt on him. Yes, the prosecution got it right in this case -- but the article makes clear that McCloskey, for example, has helped to free other factually innocent defendants -- and I'd bet that the prosecutors and police in at least some of those cases still believe the defendants were guilty as charged.
Glenn Frankel: An important point, I agree.
Boston, Mass: Your story nicely highlights one of the great philosophical issues arising from this case. Why did so many people put so much weight on what is the least reliable evidence in the case, i.e., Coleman's protestations of innocence? Meanwhile, more reliable, contrary evidence was dismissed, such as the physical evidence (admittedly limited until recently) and Coleman's prior sex offenses. As a lawyer who was originally convinced by May God Have Mercy, I believe that on the prior offenses question, our legal training actually led Kitty Behan, John Tucker, me, and others astray. Just because such evidence might not be admissible in court, that doesn't mean we can ignore it when evaluating the real guilt or innocence question in the abstract. We let our knowledge of the Federal Rules of Evidence, and ideological bias regarding the death penalty, override our other intellectual powers, including empirical evidence regarding recidivism in sex offenders. It's a cautionary tale against intellectual cherry-picking, fixating on the data points that support your conclusion and discarding the rest.
Glenn Frankel: Another important viewpoint. I've gotten several others that are equally thoughtful and I'll try to post some of them.
Lanexa, Va: THis is John Tucker again - a follow-up to my previous post and response to the assertion that my book MAY GOD HAVE MERCY was an advocacy piece. First let me say that I tried in the book to present all the evidence on both sides of the case as objectively as I could - whether it was in fact entirely objective is for others to judge, but if I was trying to write an advocacy piece I would have claimed that Coleman was innocent, when in fact I specifically said that I was not sure one way or the other. It is likely that having come to believe in Coleman's innocence, Kitty and Jim may have weighed a particular piece of evidence differently than I did coming into the matter fresh. By the same token, I think Glen, coming into the case with the knowledge that Coleman was apparently guilty has inadvertantly presented the evidence in that light, with the result that his description is less than objective. I could spend all day giving examples, but perhaps the simplest way to put it is that if the evidence of Coleman's guilt before the recent DNA tests was as clear as the anti-Coleman people have suggested, and as Glenn's article infers, the Virginia Attorney General's office would not have fought to prevent the DNA testing - and to their discredit they fought tooth and nail against it both before and after Coleman's execution.
Glenn Frankel: Giving John another shot. Let me add, I knew very well that by taking on this story ater the DNA results had pointed conclusively to Coleman's guilt, I had the enormous benefit of hindsight. I wasn't trying to judge John Tucker, Jim McCloskey, Kitty Behan, or any of Coleman's supporters. I hoped readers would draw their own conclusions---and not overly harsh ones.
Arlington, Va: Thank you for an outstanding article-- fair and balanced, no position asserted on the issue of capital punishment, just a discourse on the search for truth and the effects on the lives of those who search.
Did you learn more about the college student who married him, than you were able to fit in the article? What did she think? What did she do after the execution? Is she re-married? What did marrying a convict do to her parents and family?
Glenn Frankel: Sharon Paul and I exchanged emails and she consented to a long and helpful phone conversation. I won't invade her privacy by offering any more details about her current life. I can say that, as the story indicates, she still loves and admires the man she met in prison, whether he was innocent or guilty.
Alexandria, Va: I was disappointed to read that you were unable to interview Ms. Behan about her apparent inability to believe the results of the DNA test. Mr. McCloskey at least seems willing to concede that he was duped. The zealotry they both displayed in this sad story should be a cautionary tale for many.
Glenn Frankel: Another comment.
Memphis, Tenn.: did anybody who was against capital punishment try to dissuade you from doing this story? or, did you sense any "extra" support from those who are in favor of capital punishment. In other words, can a story like this stand on its own without the attendant politics?
Glenn Frankel: No one tried to dissuade me from writing about this. The anti-death penalty folks generally were pleased that the governor had ordered the DNA testing and hope it establishes a precedent that other states will follow.
Munich, Germany: I've read quite a few times that DNA evidence was disregarded in a murder case after a confession was obtained, but has there ever been a case where DNA evidence has been proven after the fact to be false?
Glenn Frankel: I don't know the answer. Maybe someone else does? But plenty of lawyers will tell you that the evidence is only as good as the quality of the sample and the ability of the testers to get it rght.
Rosslyn, Va: Considering the other victims--especially the "real killer", who though no saint, was not guilt of murder. Has there been any follow up on where he is or how his life has gone since the terribly irresponsible claims made by Coleman's defenders?
Glenn Frankel: I tried to locate him, but without success.
Washington, DC: This story was riveting. Most interesting to me was the fairly unanswered question: how did these otherwise reasonable investigators deny the truth for so long, even as more evidence piled up? And the "fact-driven" lawyer still believes he is innocent?
I suspect you couldn't answer that question for us because isn't a clear answer. But what is your opinion? How did this group of defenders maintain their suspension of disbelief for so long?
Glenn Frankel: I don't want to offer more than what I've included in the story. Jim McCloskey maintains he had some very solid reasons for believing in Roger's innocence---including the fact that another potential suspect lived just up the hill from the victim.
Livingston, NJ: Congratulations on an excellently written piece.
I find it interesting that the media and the usual celebrities and self-appointed elites managed to create an atmosphere that both exonerated the killer and denigrated the "hill billies" who are obviously not smart enough to know right from wrong.
At the same time, Governor Wilder and the American judicial system came out as both responsible and fair in their actions.
But most shocking were the actions of the lawyer whose public pursuit of an innocent man smacked of fanaticism. Is she still practicing law, and if so, why?
Glenn Frankel: Another opinion.
Falls Church, Va: Mr. Frankel, Though not a Virginian by birth, I have been in this area for 15 yrs. and oddly enough have good friends in Grundy. I have followed this case for most of that time since the folks I know in Grundy graduated from HS there in the late 70s. My question is not so much on Coleman (he was guilty) but on Warner:Why do you think then Gov. Warner chose to allow this first of its kind DNA test to be pursued ? (possible options: he was within a week of leaving the job/he succumbed to the W & L folks or the NYC group or a Madison Wi group, etc../he knew it would come back with a positive, thereby putting this issue to bed/or something else?) Would love your insight on this facet of the case.Thanx; R.Sim.ps: just as an aside, I don't think Warner could get served a cup of coffee anywhere near Grundy since this came up again!
Glenn Frankel: I think you're right that many folks in Grundy were not too happy that Gov. Warmer agreed to the re-testing. His staff members insist he ordered the test because the evidence was available and it was the right thing to do. Others have to decide for themselves whether presidential politics played any role.
No lessons learned?: Glenn: Your article was fascinating and extremely relevant. I look at the ongoing investigation into the alleged Duke lacrosse rape and feel the media have learned no lessons from cases like Coleman's. I'm not accusing any of the Duke players of being guilty, I'm pointing out that we don't have the necessary information to make a judgement, nor does the media. Yet many, especially on the cable news channels, have done just that. Do you feel that media coverage has been affected at all by the outcome of the Coleman case?
Glenn Frankel: This is a good place to conclude. Have we the media learned anything from our flawed coverage of the Coleman case? Are we more humble, contrite and careful? I'm afraid the question answers itself. I'm not a commentator, but I don't see much evidence that any of our public institutions---including government and the press---have gotten any humbler, more careful or more aware of their shortcomings in recent years. But one of journalism's most important duties is sift through the past, reinterpret the evidence, find the mistakes, and offer its new account.
Many thanks for all the fascinating comments, including the ones I didn't have time to post.
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