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Virginian Nears Execution Despite Doubt About Guilt : Law: New evidence emerges in murder, but Supreme Court rulings have made appeals more difficult.


GRUNDY, Va. — Only two facts about the Slate Creek murder remain undisputed.

On the night of March 10, 1981, a young housewife died violently in her tiny, one-bedroom home on a hillside above the fast-flowing creek.

And on May 20, 1992, her brother-in-law, who served as a pallbearer at her funeral, is scheduled to be electrocuted for the crime.

This Appalachian coal mining town was stunned by the wanton murder and soon focused its attention on a likely suspect. When 22-year-old Roger Keith Coleman was convicted and sentenced to die, nearly everyone here believed that the right man had been caught and would receive the punishment he deserved.

But in the decade since then, startling new evidence has emerged and doubt has replaced certainty. Some now believe that Coleman is about to die for a crime he did not commit.

Coleman's troubling saga is the kind of story that may be repeated in the years ahead as the U.S. Supreme Court makes it increasingly difficult for Death Row inmates to reopen their cases to judicial review.

A series of recent rulings limit the rights of state inmates to file writs of habeas corpus before a federal judge.

A year ago, the high court used Coleman's case to announce a particularly stiff new procedural rule: If a convict's lawyer bungles--as Coleman's did by filing a state appeal one day late--no further appeals may be heard in a federal court.

Unlike Robert Alton Harris, whose appeals were in federal courts in California for more than 10 years, Coleman has been barred from federal courts. And his claim is more fundamental: Unlike Harris, Coleman says he is innocent.

But on April 15, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected Coleman's last appeal and reiterated its own tough rule: "Allegations of 'newly discovered' evidence" are not grounds for reopening a case in the state courts.

Kathleen Behan, a Washington attorney who has fought to save Coleman, says: "Roger is going to die because of a technicality."

Details of Murder

Here is how it happened.

Wanda Fay McCoy was home alone that Tuesday night. Somewhat timid and only 19 years old, she spoke on the phone to her husband, Brad, about 9 p.m.

Brad's shift ended at 11 p.m. and he arrived home a few minutes later. But something seemed amiss. The front porch light had been turned off and Wanda did not come to unlock the door.

He soon found out why. A lamp had been knocked to the floor in the living room, and spots of blood dotted the floor. In the bedroom, he found his wife lying on her back in a pool of blood. She had been raped and her throat nearly severed by a knife.

When the police arrived a few moments later, her body was still warm.

The police soon had a suspect. Wanda's sister had married Coleman, who, as a high school senior, had been convicted of an attempted rape. Had he knocked on the door, Wanda would have let him in, Brad told police.

Coleman had been scheduled to work the night shift that evening, but his work detail had been canceled. About 10 p.m., he left the mine entrance and did not return home until after 11.

A semen sample found on the dead body came from someone with type "B" blood, which is shared by only 13% of the population--and by Roger Coleman. Brad McCoy had type "A" blood.

Two pubic hairs found on Wanda were said to be "consistent" with Coleman's hairs. A speck of type "O" blood was found on the jeans that Coleman had turned over to police the next day. Wanda McCoy, along with 45% of the population, had type "O" blood.

The jeans were wet at the bottom. No one in the dozen homes below the McCoys' saw Coleman or his pickup truck that night. Prosecutors theorized that the miner had parked his truck along a highway, waded through Slate Creek and walked the 300 yards uphill to the McCoy house. The wet jeans seemed to confirm the theory.

Coleman also turned over his three-inch pocketknife, which had a tiny dot of blood, too small to determine whether it came from a human or an animal. Police said it was the murder weapon.

Of course, not everything fit. If Coleman had waded the creek, why were there no wet footprints in the house? Wanda had died from a slashing knife wound, so why didn't Coleman have more blood on his clothes?

And her fingernails were broken, investigators noted. They searched Coleman for scratches but found none. And curiously, they found dirt on her fingers and on her abdomen. They had no explanation for that.

Coleman denied any involvement in the crime. A high school friend, Philip Vandyke, testified that, as he was heading toward the mine entrance that night, he spotted Coleman leaving about 10:10 p.m. The two stopped alongside the road and chatted for 10 to 15 minutes, Vandyke said.

From there, Coleman drove eight miles down a winding road and through the small town to a trailer park, where he retrieved a music tape that he had left four days earlier. Coleman said it was about 10:40, but the couple who returned the tape told jurors they believed that he came to their door at 10:20.

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