IN HIS FIRST year in office, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) managed to avoid the question of whether to order new DNA testing in the two-decade-old murder case of Roger Keith Coleman. He can't avoid it any longer. The Virginia courts have rejected efforts by a New Jersey charity and a group of newspapers -- including this one -- to posthumously test material bearing on whether Mr. Coleman, who was executed in 1992, was guilty of raping and murdering Wanda McCoy. But last week the charity, Centurion Ministries, petitioned Mr. Warner himself to order the testing -- a step we have urged in the past. Mr. Warner has the authority to do so, and it should not be a tough call. Few executions in modern times have proceeded in the face of stronger evidence of innocence than Mr. Coleman's. And modern testing could resolve once and for all whether the gravest of injustices was done in his case. It should be unthinkable, even after Mr. Coleman's death, to willfully refuse to know the truth.
Yet that is precisely what Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) would have Mr. Warner do. The attorney general's office successfully resisted new testing in court, and an office spokesman last week urged the governor not to intervene, insisting that "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 pretending there is no historical question as to the accuracy of the Coleman verdict will not do. Among the "histrionics" of which the office complains is the careful history of Mr. Coleman's case recounted in John C. Tucker's terrifying book, "May God Have Mercy." Mr. Coleman may well have been guilty; indeed, an early generation of DNA tests strongly suggested he was, and he flunked a polygraph on the day of his execution. But repeating the jury's verdict is not the same as testing it -- as any of the myriad prisoners freed using DNA evidence around the nation can attest.
There is another reason Mr. Warner should order the testing: If Mr. Coleman was, in fact, innocent, Ms. McCoy's murderer has never faced justice. DNA testing in other cases has served not only to vindicate the innocent but to finger actual perpetrators. The governor should not prevent investigative steps that might get a murderer off the streets just because those steps risk some embarrassment to the state's justice system.
Mr. Coleman went to his death saying, "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight." Both before and after his execution, the commonwealth has done everything in its power to avoid finding out whether he was telling the truth. It is now up to Mr. Warner to act. If Virginia executed an innocent man, that fact should not be covered up any longer.