CHARLOTTESVILLE — It may be a long time before Edgar Coker Jr. recovers fully from the trauma that stole much of his adolescence. First, he has to believe that it’s truly over.
“I had to go to Google a couple times to see if it was true or not,” Coker said in an interview about his ordeal Monday with his parents on the campus of the University of Virginia.
The first day he checked, Coker said, his name and face were still on the sex offender registry. He checked again; he was still listed. Finally, his name disappeared for good.
On the advice of his attorney, Coker had pleaded guilty in 2007 to raping a 14-year-old friend when he was 15. Two months after he went into detention, the girl admitted that she had lied. Even so, Coker remained locked up for 15 more months.
The bogus charge continued to stalk him.
He was arrested for going to a football game at his alma mater in 2011, because he remained on the sex offender registry. His family was forced to move when neighbors learned he was on the list.
Last week, a judge in Stafford County Circuit Court vacated Coker’s conviction for rape and breaking and entering and wiped his name from the sex offender registry after ruling that his attorney’s representation was “not reasonably competent.” Professors and law students with the University of Virginia’s Innocence Project and U-Va.’s Child Advocacy Clinic had labored on his behalf for six years to get the reversal.
Now 22, Coker wears a yellow-and-green rosary to help soothe the memories of being thrown into juvenile prison for something he didn’t do. After everything, he comes across as more detached than angry.
Still, he knows the score.
“I just got railroaded,” he said.
In her ruling, Circuit Court Judge Jane Marum Roush, who was brought in from Fairfax County to hear the case, found that Coker’s attorney, Denise Rafferty, did not take the basic legal steps required in such a case, first among them getting hold of a detective’s recorded interview with Coker. If she had done so, Roush said, Coker would have known “there was some evidence in support of his claims of innocence. It was not his word against the detective’s, as he was told by counsel.”
“A defense attorney should never advise his or her client to enter a guilty plea without determining what the commonwealth’s evidence is,” said Matthew Engle, legal director of the U-Va. law school’s Innocence Project.
Rafferty did not respond to a request for comment.
Michele Sousa, the mother of Coker’s accuser, has been a strong advocate for Coker. She said she’s relieved that “there’s finally closure.”
But for Coker, the memories are still fresh. Being locked up away from his family was the worst part, he said.
In 17 months, the small indignities added up. “I couldn’t use the bathroom when I wanted to use the bathroom,” he said. “I just wanted to do what I used to do, without people telling me what to do.”
After the warden sent him home in 2009, while his attorneys were still pursuing an appeal, Coker’s parents collected him in the family truck. His dad was driving, and his mom, Cherri Dulaney, had to keep reminding her husband to keep his eyes on the road. But he kept looking at his son, not believing he was free and beside him.
It was the only time Coker broke down during the whole ordeal.
“I never was the crying type or the emotional type,” he said. But “I couldn’t control it.” He shed tears from the moment they rolled off of the prison grounds until they arrived home, he said.
“You would have thought something was in his head — a bucket,” said his mother. “It was pouring.”
After they pulled up at home, Coker still sat there. Finally, his mother opened the truck door. “We had to tell him, ‘It’s okay. Step out.’ ”
When he walked into his room, he looked over his shoulder, still expecting a prison door to slam behind him.
He still keeps everything military clean. “This is a parent’s dream,” Coker said. “The bed’s done. The clothes are folded.”
In fact, though, watching what has happened to her son has been “excruciating,” Dulaney said.
After his detention was over, he tried hard to rebound. He returned to high school, became a track star and graduated. But he couldn’t shake the false conviction.
His photograph was sent out by authorities in a news release. Someone left a note at the family’s house about a rapist living inside. Others drove by to check him out. There was at least one death threat online, and the family had to move multiple times.
Coker holed up and rarely ventured outside. “You worry about yourself,” he said. “If you can go outside, who can harm you? That’s when I started to stay to myself.”
He has begun to reemerge. He found a place to live and last month got a job restocking a salad bar. He never loved school, he said, and before his prosecution he had wanted to try to be a professional basketball player. Now, he writes poetry, crafts musical beats and hooks, and hopes to pursue a career in music.
He goes on long walks near his home in Orange County with his headphones on. But he still spends a lot of time in his room, working on his music.
His mom wants to make sure her son is embracing the world, not shying away from it. She wants him “just to be at a place where he’s comfortable with himself and he’s just comfortable living.”
Coker is trying.
He offers a two-word summary for what has already passed: “The end,” he said.
And for the future?
“I’m not sure yet,” he said. “Just live, day by day.”