DNA Ties Man Executed In '92 To The Murder He Denied

Thirteen years after Roger K. Coleman went to the electric chair declaring, "An innocent man is being murdered tonight," a new DNA test has found that he was almost certainly the source of genetic material found in the body of his murdered sister-in-law, Virginia officials announced on Thursday. The finding was a stunning blow to a lay minister who for nearly 18 years argued for Mr. Coleman's innocence, and it vindicated the prosecutors who won Mr. Coleman's conviction in 1982 and the governor, L. Douglas Wilder, who allowed his execution to proceed 10 years later. "The confirmation that Roger Coleman's DNA was present reaffirms the verdict and the sanction," said Gov. Mark Warner, who ordered the test last week. It was the first time that a governor had ordered a DNA test involving an executed person. The testing was closely watched across the nation because of the belief that it would provide powerful momentum to death penalty abolitionists if it were to prove that an innocent man had been put to death. Yet even after Thursday's announcement, critics of capital punishment said Mr. Warner's decision set an important precedent that might encourage other governors, judges and prosecutors to allow postexecution DNA analysis in disputed capital punishment cases. "The real issue is not whether one man was in fact guilty or innocent, it's rather that he set the example for what the other 49 governors should do on the hundreds of cases where DNA material still exists from people who have been executed," said Peter Neufeld, co-director of the Innocence Project, a legal clinic that has helped exonerate 172 inmates, often through DNA tests. Supporters of the death penalty said the test was also significant because it proved that the criminal justice system had worked, and they predicted that the confirmation of Mr. Coleman's guilt would undermine future efforts to exonerate death row inmates. "Once again we see that once you cut through the nonsense, the jury got it right," said Michael Paranzino, co-founder of Throw Away the Key, a group based in Maryland that supports capital punishment. Nevertheless, Mr. Paranzino said he endorsed Mr. Warner's decision to order the new test, saying he thought such reviews would consistently prove the guilt of executed murderers and thus build public confidence in capital punishment. Mr. Coleman, a coal miner, was convicted of raping and murdering Wanda McCoy, the 19-year-old sister of his wife, in the rural southwestern Virginia town of Grundy in 1981. During his trial, prosecutors said that hairs found at the scene matched Mr. Coleman's, and that a spot of blood on his dungarees matched Ms. McCoy's blood type, O. The prosecution also presented the testimony of a prisoner who said Mr. Coleman had confessed in jail. In 1988, James C. McCloskey, a divinity school graduate and founder of Centurion Ministries Inc., a group based in Princeton, N.J., that advocates for inmates it considers innocent, took up Mr. Coleman's case and spent four years reinvestigating it. Mr. McCloskey concluded that Mr. Coleman did not have the time or motivation to commit the murder, raising questions about the jailhouse confession and the forensic evidence. He asserted that Mr. Coleman had been wearing clothing covered with coal dust but that no dust was found at the scene, and he offered evidence pointing to an alternative suspect. The case gained international attention, with Time magazine putting Mr. Coleman on its cover and Pope John Paul II urging that his execution be stayed. But Governor Wilder, a Democrat, rejected a clemency petition, and Mr. Coleman died proclaiming his innocence. Over the years, Mr. McCloskey continued to press state officials to conduct more sophisticated DNA analysis on vaginal swabs taken from the victim's body. Last week, Mr. Warner, a Democrat who supports the death penalty, agreed, saying the new tests could provide "a more complete picture of guilt or innocence." On Thursday, Mr. McCloskey, whose work has exonerated two death row inmates, called the results "a kick in the stomach" and expressed dismay that Mr. Coleman had so successfully deceived him. "Our search for facts can delude us into thinking that what we have found is gold, only to discover that it is in fact fool's gold," Mr. McCloskey said.

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