DNA re-test ordered on executed Virginia man

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Friday, January 6, 2006

Virginia’s outgoing governor and possible 2008 presidential contender Mark Warner ordered on Thursday that DNA testing should be performed on Roger Keith Coleman, a Grundy, Virginia man executed in May 1992 for the rape and murder in 1981 of Wanda Fay McCoy.

The death penalty was re-instated in the United States after a Supreme Court ruling in 1976, reversing its brief suspension from 1973. A total of 1,004 prisoners have been executed since then, but none yet have been posthumously exonerated. That could change if the more precise DNA testing methods available today find Coleman innocent.

Coleman, 33, maintained his innocence to the end, saying "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have," as his final words before being strapped into the electric chair.

Governor Warner said regarding the Coleman case, "[that] technology has advanced significantly and can be applied in the case of someone who consistently maintained his innocence until execution… My prayers are with the family of Wanda McCoy as we take this extraordinary step." Coleman's resolute insistence on his innocence drew national attention when he was pictured on the cover of TIME magazine, focusing attention on capital punishment.

The victim was a 19-year-old housewife and Coleman’s sister-in-law. DNA work done on sperm evidence during the 1990’s found that Coleman was within 2% of the possible population of people who could have committed the crime. Coleman’s execution was allowed to proceed by then governor Douglas Wilder.

Virginia governor
Mark Warner

The biological evidence used during Coleman's post-conviction appeal process has been under negotiation for months to agree on a proper method to have it re-tested. Four Virginia newspapers and the Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey organization, asked for the re-testing. The request was denied by the Virginia Supreme Court. With negotiations over the biological evidence successfully concluded, and with a new appeal from the Centurion Ministries to Governor Warner, the testing has begun and may conclude before the end of Warner’s governorship on January 14.

The sperm has been kept frozen at a California laboratory for 15 years. Dr. Blake, the head of the lab, submitted an affidavit attesting to the integrity of the samples. The first set of samples was sent to the Ontario Centre of Forensic Sciences lab in Toronto on December 15. A second delivery currently is underway.

"We have found that the latest DNA technology—in certain instances where the other facts of a case support it—has provided a definitive result not available at the time of trial or post-conviction testing," said Governor Warner.