New DNA tests confirmed the guilt of a man who went to his death in Virginia’s electric chair in 1992 proclaiming his innocence, the governor said Thursday.
The case had been closely watched by both sides in the death penalty debate because no executed convict in the United States has ever been exonerated by scientific testing.
The tests, ordered by the governor earlier this month, prove Roger Keith Coleman was guilty of the 1981 rape and murder of his sister-in-law, Gov. Mark R. Warner said.
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.
The report from the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto concluded there was almost no conceivable doubt that Coleman was the source of the sperm found in the victim.
“The probability that a randomly selected individual unrelated to Roger Coleman would coincidentally share the observed DNA profile is estimated to be 1 in 19 million,” the report said.
A finding of innocence would have been explosive news and almost certainly would have had a powerful effect on the public’s attitude toward capital punishment. Death penalty opponents have argued for years that the risk of a grave and irreversible mistake by the criminal justice system is too great to allow capital punishment.
“We have sought the truth using DNA technology not available at the time the commonwealth carried out the ultimate criminal sanction,” Warner said in a statement. “The confirmation that Roger Coleman’s DNA was present reaffirms the verdict and the sanction. Again, my prayers are with the family of Wanda McCoy at this time.”
Initial DNA and blood tests in 1990 placed Coleman within the 0.2 percent of the population who could have produced the semen at the crime scene. But his lawyers said the expert they hired to conduct those initial DNA tests misinterpreted the results.
The governor agreed to a new round of more sophisticated DNA tests in one of his last official acts. Warner, who has been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2008, leaves office on Saturday.
Coleman’s case drew international attention as the well-spoken inmate 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.
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.
“An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight,” the 33-year-old said moments before he was electrocuted on May 20, 1992. “When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.”
A former prosecutor in the case said the results, while not surprising, were a relief.
“Quite frankly, I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off of my shoulders,” Grundy attorney Tom Scott said. “You can imagine, had it turned out differently, (the other prosecutor) and I certainly would have been scapegoats.”
Prosecutors 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.
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.
James McCloskey, executive director of Centurion Ministries, had been fighting to prove Coleman’s innocence since 1988. The two shared Coleman’s final meal together — cold slices of pizza — just a few hours before Coleman was executed.
“I now know that I was wrong. Indeed, this is a bitter pill to swallow,” McCloskey said in a statement, describing Thursday’s findings as “a kick in the stomach.”
Death penalty opponents praised Warner’s decision to order the testing but warned that Coleman’s case does not mean the death penalty is infallible.
“Obviously, one case does not in any way reflect on the correctness of the other 1,000 executions we’ve had in the last 30 years,” said Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project. “Other governors should take their lead from Governor Warner and do post-execution testing in their cases, because ... there’s no reason not to — it’s all about getting to the truth.”