National Governors Association Holds Annual Meeting
Mark Kegans  /  Getty Images file
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner speaks at the National Governors Association annual meeting in July 2005.
updated 1/5/2006 11:00:45 PM ET 2006-01-06T04:00:45

Gov. Mark R. Warner on Thursday ordered DNA evidence retested to determine whether a man convicted of rape and murder was innocent when he was executed in 1992.

If the testing shows Roger Keith Coleman did not rape and kill his sister-in-law in 1981, it would be the first time in the United States a person has been exonerated by scientific testing after his execution, according to death penalty opponents.

Warner said he ordered the tests because of technological advances that could provide a level of forensic certainty not available in the 1980s.

“This is an extraordinarily unique circumstance, where technology has advanced significantly and can be applied in the case of someone who consistently maintained his innocence until execution,” said Warner, a Democrat who leaves office Jan. 14.

“I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence,” Warner said.

A former prosecutor in the case did not object to the tests and said he was confident they would confirm Coleman’s guilt.

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.

Case had global reach
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.

Warner, who is considering a presidential bid in 2008, has heard requests throughout his term from death penalty opposition groups who wanted the evidence retested.

“This is a proper action for the governor to take. It’s not right to shy away from a difficult question, or even shy away from reopening cases when there is a chance that something new might be learned,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.

Defense points to timeline
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.

ROGER KEITH COLEMAN
Steve Helber  /  AP file
Roger Keith Coleman at the Greensville Correctional Center, in Jarratt, Va., in a May 1992 file photo.
“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.”

Tom Scott, an attorney who helped prosecute the case, did not challenge the tests and believed the analysis would confirm Coleman’s guilt — provided the sample has been properly preserved.

Prosecutor points to evidence
Scott said a mountain of other evidence pointed 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 fraction of the population who could have left semen at the scene.

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.

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