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Friday, December 23, 2005

Was an Innocent Man Put to Death

In the mid-1990s a book called May God have Mercy was written about the Coleman case. It was required reading in one of my courses and students could not believe the many discrepancies revealed by the author.

Should DNA tests prove that he was executed in spite of being innocent, one can expect that the death penalty issue will become a major public policy debate.

Good for Mark Warner for ordering sweeping DNA review
December 21, 2005 12:50 am
Ray Strong

We just learned that Gov. Warner has ordered the testing of available DNA evidence in all of the 660 Virginia cases where it has been preserved ["DNA tests reveal two more wrongful convictions," Dec. 15].

Kudos for him. It is sad that this is the result of learning in recent weeks that sample testing shows some innocent people were incarcerated and that modern DNA tests show they were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted.

It is, however, wonderful that technology allows us to attempt to put right our past mistakes, however late they may be.

I applaud the governor's actions and hope and pray that no other mistakes are found.

However, if they are, we should make the corrections as soon as possible for the sake of the innocent and the victims of these crimes, whose perpetrators went free when the wrong person was convicted.

Our judicial system needs to function correctly to preserve its integrity and our faith in it.

Also, for the sake of justice, I urge the governor to test the DNA evidence in the case of the executed Roger Keith Coleman. This case needs to be put to rest.

The people of Virginia deserve to know whether a previous execution involved an innocent or guilty man. For better or worse, we deserve to know so we can chart a better, more just course in the future.

No innocent person deserves to be incarcerated or executed. Science provides us with a better way to achieve fair justice, and we Virginians should take advantage of it.

Regardless of whatever else happens, bravo for Gov. Warner's actions today. He deserves our respect.

Ray Strong

Copyright 2005 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.

DNA tests could show if Va. executed innocent man
By Richard Willing, USA TODAY
Virginia's governor is preparing to order DNA tests that could show that a coal miner executed for a rape-murder in 1992 did not commit the crime.

If the tests, which Democratic Gov. Mark Warner is expected to order before he leaves office in mid-January, clear Roger Coleman, death penalty opponents say it would be the first time in the history of the American death penalty that an executed convict is scientifically shown to be innocent.

"The final argument (of death penalty advocates) is that no innocent person has been executed," said Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington, D.C., group that seeks to end capital punishment.

"If you find an innocent man who has been executed, that's a final nail through that," Dieter said.

Ellen Qualls, a spokeswoman for Warner, said the governor's office has "basically worked out" details of how tests will be conducted with Coleman's representatives and with a California lab that has held evidence from the crime scene for about 15 years.

She said a decision on testing will be made shortly.

Forensic Science Associates of Richmond, Calif., performed DNA analysis before Coleman's execution, using a now-obsolete technique. The tests could not exclude Coleman as the killer, but could not say definitively that he committed the crime.

DNA tests developed since that time could exonerate Coleman or confirm his guilt.

Coleman, a coal miner in Grundy, in southwest Virginia, was convicted of the 1981 rape-murder of Wanda McCoy, his sister-in-law.

He claimed innocence from the start, testifying at his trial that he was elsewhere at the time the crime occurred.

Several witnesses gave evidence that tended to support his alibi.

Because Coleman's lawyers missed a filing deadline, appeals court judges did not see additional evidence suggesting that another man raped and murdered McCoy.

Coleman's execution was opposed by Pope John Paul II. Coleman protested his innocence to the end, and predicted that he would "eventually" be exonerated.

Michael McGlothlin, a Grundy lawyer who prosecuted the case, remains convinced of his guilt.

McGlothlin's version: The miner was a likely suspect, having been convicted four years earlier for an attempted rape. Coleman's alibi was countered by other witnesses. The other man Coleman's supporters say could have been the killer was investigated and found to have a different blood type than the rapist.

"I'm in favor of testing which can resolve difficult matters, but I'm also in favor of facts," McGlothlin said."

"Because the facts are inconvenient for Mr. Coleman, that doesn't make them any less factual," he said.

John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University and death penalty supporter, says opponents will incur a "major hit to their credibility" if DNA tests confirm Coleman's guilt.