A New Jersey charity yesterday continued its campaign to determine whether Roger Keith Coleman was wrongfully executed, asking Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to order new DNA testing of evidence left over from the disputed case.
In a letter sent to Warner's office, attorneys for Centurion Ministries said the testing is necessary because of lingering questions about Coleman's guilt.
The charity put Warner in the center of the highly charged debate because its efforts in the courts have been rejected. The Virginia Supreme Court in November refused to allow the testing, ruling that doing so would venture far beyond what is considered rightful public access to DNA testing in criminal cases.
Coleman, a coal miner from southwestern Virginia, was convicted of the 1981 rape and murder of his sister-in-law, Wanda McCoy, and executed in 1992. DNA testing on Coleman in the early 1990s was inconclusive but strongly suggested that he was the killer. Yet Coleman's claims of innocence drew national attention, and his supporters want to take advantage of improved technology that has cleared more than 100 felons, including six Virginia inmates, through DNA testing in the past 13 years.
"We can now determine whether Mr. Coleman was rightly or wrongly executed, so why not find out?" said Paul Enzinna, the Washington attorney for Centurion who drafted the letter to Warner. "People can't stomach the idea of innocent people being executed, and if Americans are shown that is happening, I think a lot of Americans will say, 'I don't want that system anymore.' "
Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Warner, said the governor has received only a brief synopsis of the letter and will "be reviewing it with his legal advisers in the coming weeks." Hall would not comment further.
If Warner ordered the post-execution testing, he would be the first governor to do so, people familiar with the debate said. Only one judge has ordered DNA tests after execution. That testing, performed in 2000 in the case of Ellis Wayne Felker in Georgia, was inconclusive.
The request by Centurion marks the latest chapter in a case that has garnered extensive attention since Coleman, while strapped to Virginia's electric chair, proclaimed his innocence and said Americans would rethink their support for the death penalty if they knew the truth about his case.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), urged Warner to reject the request.
"DNA testing is without a doubt a very powerful tool, but it is a tool for the living," said Murtaugh, whose office defended the state in the lawsuit filed by Centurion and a group of newspapers, including The Washington Post, that resulted in November's Supreme Court ruling. "Roger Coleman was and is guilty of the rape and murder of Wanda McCoy. All the repeated histrionics by various lawyers won't change that."
But David Menschel, a staff attorney for the New York-based Innocence Project, said the state "has absolutely nothing to lose by ordering the testing. If it confirms Mr. Coleman's guilt, then isn't that wonderful for the state of Virginia."
The genetic evidence left from the case has been kept frozen since 1990 in the California laboratory that conducted the original tests. When Buchanan County Circuit Court Judge K.R. Williams first rejected the lawsuit filed by Centurion and the newspapers, he said he would order the lab to turn over the material to the state if the state ever asked, Enzinna said. He said the state could recover the material and order the testing by making that request to the judge.