Published January 13, 2006
RICHMOND, Va. – Death penalty opponents said new DNA tests confirming the guilt of a murderer who was put to death in Virginia while still proclaiming his innocence will do nothing to end their fight to abolish capital punishment.
The test results, announced Thursday by Gov. Mark R. Warner, prove Roger Keith Coleman was guilty of the 1981 rape and murder of his sister-in-law, putting an end to a debate over his guilt that has raged since he was executed in 1992.
Death penalty opponents have argued for years that the risk of a grave and irreversible mistake by the criminal justice system is too great to allow capital punishment. A finding of innocence in the Coleman case would have been explosive news and almost certainly would have had a powerful effect on the public's attitude toward the death penalty. But despite the finding of guilt, death penalty opponents insist the results do not mean capital punishment is infallible.
"Obviously, one case does not in any way reflect on the correctness of the other 1,000 executions we've had in the last 30 years," said Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project. "Other governors should take their lead from Governor Warner and do post-execution testing in their cases, because ... there's no reason not to — it's all about getting to the truth."
Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the gruesome murder of 19-year-old Wanda McCoy, who was found raped, stabbed and nearly beheaded in her home in the coal mining town of Grundy.
The report from the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto concluded there was almost no conceivable doubt that Coleman was the source of the sperm found in the victim.
"The probability that a randomly selected individual unrelated to Roger Coleman would coincidentally share the observed DNA profile is estimated to be 1 in 19 million," the report said.
A former prosecutor in the case said the results, while not surprising, were a relief.
"Quite frankly, I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off of my shoulders," Grundy attorney Tom Scott said. "You can imagine, had it turned out differently, (the other prosecutor) and I certainly would have been scapegoats."
Initial DNA and blood tests in 1990 placed Coleman within the 0.2 percent of the population who could have produced the semen at the crime scene. But his lawyers said the expert they hired to conduct those initial DNA tests misinterpreted the results.
The governor agreed to a new round of more sophisticated DNA tests in one of his last official acts. Warner, who has been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2008, leaves office on Saturday.
Coleman's case drew international attention as the well-spoken inmate pleaded his case on talk shows and in magazines and newspapers. Time magazine featured the coal miner on its cover. Pope John Paul II tried to block the execution. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's office was flooded with thousands of calls and letters of protest from around the world.
Coleman's attorneys argued that he did not have time to commit the crime, that tests showed semen from two men was found inside McCoy and that another man bragged about murdering her.
"An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight," the 33-year-old said moments before he was electrocuted. "When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have."
One criminal law expert said the results in the Coleman case should have little impact on the nation's death penalty debate.
"I don't know that the particular result here really matters," said University of Virginia criminal law professor Richard Bonnie. "Of course there's going to be cases in which people have claimed to be innocent and that DNA testing ... will tend to disprove that — that should be expected. But I think we also know that there are going to be cases where the claim of innocence is supported."
Whatever the potential outcome, making DNA testing readily available to all death row inmates should be of vital concern, said Earl Washington Jr., who came within nine days of being executed before being pardoned in 2000 thanks to DNA testing.
"DNA works two different ways — find you guilty, find you innocent. Today, the DNA on Roger Coleman found him guilty," said Washington, who befriended Coleman while they were on death row together. "I would rather see everyone on death row do DNA (testing) if possible. One day they might end up executing an innocent person."
Death penalty proponents welcomed the results. "Stop the presses — it turns out that rapists and killers are also liars," Michael Paranzino, president of a group called Throw Away the Key, said in a statement.
Four newspapers and Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey organization that investigated Coleman's case and became convinced of his innocence, sought a court order to have the evidence retested. The Virginia Supreme Court declined to order the testing in 2002, so Centurion Ministries asked Warner to intervene.
James McCloskey, executive director of Centurion Ministries, had been fighting to prove Coleman's innocence since 1988. The two shared Coleman's final meal together — cold slices of pizza — just a few hours before Coleman was executed.
"I had always believed in Roger's complete innocence. In my view, he had no motive, means, or opportunity to do this crime. I now know that I was wrong. Indeed, this is a bitter pill to swallow," said McCloskey, adding he felt betrayed by Coleman. "Even though the results are far different than I expected, and even though this particular truth feels like a kick in the stomach, I do not regret that this effort has at last brought finality to all who have had an interest in this matter."