RICHMOND — Attorneys for a Virginia man falsely accused of rape in 2007 argued before the state Supreme Court on Friday that a lower court erred when it refused to hear his claim that he had received ineffective counsel.
The hearing represented another step in Edgar Coker Jr.’s four-year effort to have his case set aside by the Stafford Circuit Court. Coker, 20, spent 17 months in a juvenile facility after following his attorney’s recommendation that he plead guilty to raping a 14-year-old friend rather than risk adult charges and a lengthy term. Soon after he went to prison, his accuser recanted. Since then, Coker’s family has fought to clear his name and have him removed from the state’s sex offender registry.
Matthew Engle, one of Coker’s attorneys, told the court that the Stafford judge was wrong when he said the court didn’t have grounds to hear Coker’s petition.
Engle said that jurisdiction doesn’t end when a petitioner is released from confinement or parole. “There is no dispute that he was detained when the [petition] was filed” in August 2009, said Engle, legal director at the University of Virginia Law School’s Innocence Project. Coker was 15 when he was accused.
Assistant Attorney General Gregory Franklin argued that because Coker had been released from prison and was no longer on parole by the time the court heard his claim, there was little the court could do. “Without custody, there is no jurisdiction” to hear the case, he said.
The court will likely issue a decision within two months.
The case has garnered attention from the General Assembly. Del. Gregory D. Habeeb (R-Salem) has proposed a bill that would allow juveniles-to apply for a “writ of actual innocence” even if they plead guilty to a crime and non-biological evidence later surfaces that throws the conviction into doubt. Currently, those who plead guilty are not permitted to offer evidence after their convictions.
The family has long contended that Coker’s attorney, Denise Rafferty, failed to investigate the case fully and then advised them to plead guilty because, she said, there was DNA evidence linking him to the crime. But a lab report shows a DNA test was never conducted. Rafferty has said she did everything she could to help the family mount a defense.
Coker and his parents attended the hearing and said they were encouraged that judges appeared skeptical of the government’s case. Several attorneys and law students were in court on Coker’s behalf. “It’s nice to see people haven’t forgotten,” Coker said.
The court proceeding was also attended by Michele Sousa, the mother of the woman, now 19, who accused Coker of rape. Sousa said she wants to correct a wrong.
“My part isn’t done until he gets his case reversed,” Sousa said.
Deirdre Enright, director of investigation at the Innocence Project Clinic, said that even if the state Supreme Court sends the case back to Stafford, the family has a long way to go to get the justice it’s seeking.
“We’re not close to being done,” she said.