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The Nation

'92 Execution Haunts Death Penalty Foes

Justice: Activists fight for DNA test in hopes of bolstering doubts on capital punishment.

July 22, 2001|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Nine years after Roger Keith Coleman was put to death in Virginia's electric chair, his legal case lives on, a test of whether the state may have executed the wrong man.

A young coal miner from a small Appalachian town, Coleman was convicted of the rape and murder of his sister-in-law, even though no witnesses or conclusive evidence tied him to the crime.

"I promised Roger I would do whatever I could to prove his innocence, and this is the perfect case to do it," says Jim McCloskey, a Princeton, N.J., minister who reinvestigates the cases of death row inmates he believes were wrongly convicted. "The evidence is right there, perfectly preserved."

For McCloskey and other death penalty opponents eager to capitalize on a decline in public support for executions, the question of a dead man's guilt or innocence is no moot point.

Opening a new chapter in the continuing debate over capital punishment, they have launched an effort to find an innocent person executed in the recent past.

Already, DNA testing has proved that innocent people have been sent to death row. Since 1993, 10 inmates across the country have been released from death sentences after DNA tests showed they were not guilty of the crime that condemned them.

Those mistakes have shaken confidence in the system of capital punishment, even among supporters.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who has voted consistently over 20 years to uphold the death penalty, said earlier this month that the number of recently freed death row inmates suggests that "the system may well be allowing some innocent defendants to be executed."

That has yet to be demonstrated, but the proof may not be far away. Indeed, it may well be available in crime labs, kept in cold storage.

Death penalty foes long have suspected that innocents are scattered among the 725 people executed since the Supreme Court revived capital punishment 25 years ago. And some of them are looking to DNA to prove it. New DNA tests of old samples of blood or semen could demonstrate, once and for all, whether an executed man was innocent or guilty.

"DNA has the ability to reach back to the grave," says Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. So far, there has been "no definitive proof of a fatal error [in a capital case], but there are some cases out there where it is possible it could be proven."

Dieter and others believe that showing beyond question that a state executed an innocent person could have a profound effect on the national debate concerning capital punishment.

"It could be very important. One concern about the death penalty is that it is an irrevocable act," Dieter says.

At the top of his group's list of "doubtful" executions is the case of Coleman, who was executed in 1992 for the murder of Wanda McCoy.

Perhaps not surprisingly, state authorities are none too eager to cooperate in the effort to reopen the case. Last month, Virginia officials went to court to block any new tests of the semen samples that helped convict Coleman.

A blood typing test administered shortly after his arrest had put Coleman in the 13% of the population that could have been a source of the sample found on McCoy. A disputed lab test before his execution had gone further in pointing to Coleman. A more sophisticated DNA test developed not long afterward could have shown absolutely whether Coleman was the rapist and murderer.

But Virginia authorities argued that a jury had convicted him beyond a reasonable doubt, and further lab tests appeared to confirm the result.

"There is no remaining factual issue as to Coleman's guilt," and "there simply is no important interest in retesting" the evidence of a man who was executed long ago, says Pamela Rumpz, an assistant attorney general for Virginia, in a court brief filed in June.

Lawyers for Centurion Ministries, McCloskey's nonprofit group, had sought a court order permitting a DNA test. They were joined by the Boston Globe, the Washington Post and two Virginia newspapers that had taken an interest in Coleman's case.

His pending execution in the spring of 1992 had drawn national attention. Coleman steadfastly had proclaimed his innocence, and even the Virginia judges who upheld his conviction said the case against him was "entirely circumstantial." No one saw him at McCoy's home on the night of the murder, and no fingerprints were found.

Time magazine featured him on its cover and described Coleman as someone who "might be innocent" but was due to die in the electric chair.

The original crime was swift, violent, unprovoked and inexplicable in the small Appalachian town of Grundy, Va.

On a March evening in 1981, McCoy, 19, was alone in a small rented house that sat on a hill above the fast-flowing Slate Creek outside of town. Her husband, Brad, got off work nearby at 11 p.m. and would be home a few minutes later.

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