RICHMOND, Va. – With less than two weeks left in Gov. Mark R. Warner's term, time is running out for him to arrange DNA testing that could determine whether Virginia sent an innocent man to the electric chair in 1992.
If the tests show Roger Keith Coleman did not rape and murder his sister-in-law in 1981, it will mark the first time in the United States an executed person has been scientifically proved innocent, say death penalty opponents, who are keenly aware that such a result could have a powerful effect on public opinion.
"I think it would be the final straw for a lot of people who are on the fence on the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
A Gallup poll in October found that 64 percent of Americans support the death penalty. That is the lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.
Warner -- a potential Democratic presidential contender for 2008 -- hopes to complete negotiations over how the test would be conducted before his term ends Jan. 14, said spokesman Kevin Hall.
Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of 19-year-old Wanda McCoy, his wife's sister, who was found raped, stabbed and nearly beheaded in her home in the coal mining town of Grundy.
The case drew international attention as the well-spoken Coleman 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. Coleman was executed on May 20, 1992.
"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."
DNA tests in 1990 placed Coleman within the 2 percent of the population who could have produced the semen at the crime scene. Additional blood typing put Coleman within a group consisting of 0.2 percent of the population. His lawyers said the expert they hired to conduct the test misinterpreted the results.
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.
Warner's decision has been held up in part because the sample is not in the state's possession, Hall said. The evidence is being stored in a Richmond, Calif., lab by the forensic scientist who conducted the initial DNA tests, Edward Blake.
Blake, who has kept the sample frozen since 1990, has balked at returning the evidence to Virginia, arguing that testing should be conducted at his lab. He has said that Virginia has a vested interest in tests that would either confirm Coleman's guilt or be inconclusive, since a result showing Coleman was innocent could tarnish the state's criminal justice system.
Blake has also argued that transporting the fragile evidence -- about one-fifth of a drop of sperm -- could destroy it.
Warner, Blake and Centurion Ministries have been trying to negotiate an arrangement under which an independent lab would take possession of the sample and test it, Hall said.
"It certainly is the governor's desire that an acceptable procedure be hammered out before we leave office," Hall said.
If the parties cannot come to an agreement before Warner leaves, the issue will fall to Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Kaine, who supports DNA retesting in the case, said Delacey Skinner, a Kaine spokeswoman.
Tom Scott, who helped prosecute the case, said he has no objection to retesting the DNA and is confident doing so would confirm Coleman's guilt -- provided the sample has been properly preserved and not tampered with.
"If the integrity of the sample has been violated in some way, we're going to have an inconclusive result, which isn't going to settle anything," he said.
Scott said a mountain of evidence points to Coleman as the killer: There was no sign of forced entry at McCoy's house, leading investigators to believe she knew her attacker; Coleman was previously convicted of the attempted rape of a teacher and was charged with exposing himself to a librarian two months before the murder; a pubic hair found on McCoy's body was consistent with Coleman's hair; and the original DNA tests placed him within a tiny fraction of the population who could have left semen at the scene.
Coleman also failed a lie detector test hours before his execution.
"When you add all of this evidence together, it's a connect-the-dots case," he said. "In my mind, there just wasn't any question about it."