Wheels of Justice Grind (Too) Slowly

Just as he leaves office, Virginia's Governor Mark Warner finally got around to ordering that the DNA of a man executed for murder be retested by modern methods to see whether or not he did it. The executed man, Roger Coleman, maintained his innocence up until his death. Reason argued that this testing should have been done long ago.

The Washington Post reports:

Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner has ordered DNA testing that could prove the guilt or innocence of a man executed in 1992, marking the first time a governor has asked for genetic testing of someone put to death.

The analysis, which began last month, comes in the case of Roger K. Coleman, a convicted killer whose proclamations of innocence -- including on the night of his execution -- raised concern nationwide over whether the wrong man died in the electric chair.

Warner's decision marks a dramatic turnaround in Virginia, where officials and judges have routinely refused to reexamine evidence in criminal cases after a defendant's conviction and have been steadfast in their denials of post-execution requests. Results of the Coleman tests, which are being conducted by scientists in a Toronto laboratory, could be announced before Warner (D) leaves office next week.

Justice needs to be done whatever the fallout for the national debate over the death penalty. Shame on those who stood in the way of this step for so long.

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  • Jeff P.||

    Scientists make southerners itchy.
    And all that fancy DNA talk sounds a little too Darwiny for them.

  • ||

    This is the same state where, until recently, you only had three weeks (or a month, I don't remember) after your conviction to show new evidence. You could be convicted of the most horrific mass murder in history, and then a month later I discover a videotape proving beyond a doubt that someone else did it, but you're still screwed--no right to a new trial, the best you could hope for was a pardon.

    (Remember: so long as somebody is punished for a crime, that is all that matters. Whether or not the guy was actually guilty is immaterial.)

  • Warren||

    Justice needs to be done wnatever the fallout for the national debate over the death penalty.

    I'm all in favor of DNA testing. The more CSI type evidence (as opposed to witness and certain 'expert' testimony) we can use to determine guilt, the better I sleep nights (not that I think it's fool proof, just more reliable). But I wonder, exactly what justice are you looking for Ron? The man has already been executed. While I agree that it is important to find out if he actually did the deed, it is so solely for the fallout.

  • ||

    I'm also willing to bet that if it turns out Coleman was innocent, the cops are not going to re-open the case and look for the actual murderer.

  • slightlybad||

    Yo Jeff -- from the article:

    "Virginia -- the first state to create a DNA databank to solve crimes -- has become the first to engage in widespread genetic testing in old cases in an effort to see whether new technology will uncover any wrongful convictions."

  • MP||

    But I wonder, exactly what justice are you looking for Ron? The man has already been executed.

    Being exonerated after the fact may offer little consolation to his family members, but offering even a little consolation makes the effort worthwhile.

  • Warren||

    What makes you say that? (about not reopening)

    Consolation is all well and good (I think exposing weaknesses in the judicial system is even more beneficial, but that's neither here nor there) but it isn't what I'd call "justice".

  • ||

    This was the first major death penalty controversy I am old enough to remember. I recall that Time had a big article about his potential innocence and Reader's Digest had a big article arguing in favor of his guilt. That pretty much sums up the difference between the two magazines.

  • ||

    What makes you say that? (about not reopening)

    A few years ago Virginia released from prison a man named Earl Washington, who had spent over a decade in prison for a murder until DNA evidence showed he hadn't done it. The cops never re-opened that case, either.

  • Transparency Lovin' Dep't||

    The court system is already pretty transparent and this adds to the transparency -- no more sweeping away wrong results -- those mistakes will be examined later. Excellent.

  • ||

    Warren: Justice is getting what you deserve. If Coleman isn't guilty, he didn't deserve to be executed. Thus an injustice will have been done. His family and the rest of us need to know that the criminal law courts are meting out deserved (that is, just) punishments, not undeserved (unjust) ones.

    Also, the real killer must be found so that he or she can be punished. That would be justice.

  • ||

    Ron Bailey is right.

    If nothing else, this should be investigated from the standpoint of quality control. If the DNA tests incriminate him, hey, give those cops a pat on the back. If the DNA tests exonerate him, or at least throw some serious (reasonable?) doubt on the case, that's a wake up call.

  • ||

    Since this is Virginia, is there any chance of them using the DNA tests to prove that your uncles, aunts, neices, and nephews actually count as your family?

  • Ron Hardin||

    I don't see the big deal. If his family wants the test, fine.

    Death penalty support accepts some innocents will be executed.

    For that, you get to say in advance that the victim's voice, which is missing, takes center stage in the murder trial, in the matter of justice.

    Which is the reason for death penalty support.

  • ||

    I don't see the big deal.

    It is a very big deal for the Virginia "justice" system, which has a history of refusing to allow itself or others to correct any mistakes it has made.

  • ||

    I don't see how logically this test would prove his innocence. The only thing that a negative finding would prove is that piece of physical evidence does not support his conviction.

    Oh, and as far as, "what use in knowing?": it would be terrific ammunition for the anti-death penalty crowd.

  • kgsam||

    We can't have evidence of people being wrongly convicted and executed. Why the guilt load could spoil some prosecutor's enjoyment of life.

    The only thing that a negative finding would prove is that piece of physical evidence does not support his conviction.

    That rather depends on the nature and significance of the evidence.

  • ||

    Just to play devil's advocate, if you're a religious type, you assume that "justice" is in God's hands. The best humans can do is create "order." Humans being fallible creatures and all.

    That being the case, the important thing, as someone said satirically, really would be that SOMEONE be punished for the crime and, more importantly, that people BELIEVE that he is, in fact, guilty, as a deterrent to future crimes. If he's actually the guilty party, well, that's just a bonus.

    The reason they wouldn't want anyone to know that they executed the wrong man is twofold: they don't believe the system has to be accurate to work, and they believe it only works if everyone believes it IS accurate.

  • ||

    I don't see how logically this test would prove his innocence. The only thing that a negative finding would prove is that piece of physical evidence does not support his conviction.

    If he was executed for a rape/murder and it turns out the semen collected from the victim was not his, that's a pretty strong suggestion that someone else did it.

  • ||

    As far as I am concerned, it would only prove that they have no evidence using that method of testing. Just as a theoretical, what if two men raped a woman and one wore a condom? Or there is consentual sex with someone else and the rapist uses a condom. I am not saying that the person in question is guilty because a jury said so, I am just saying that it doesn't prove anything. Jennifers use of the words "strong suggestion" bear this out to be nondefinitive.
    Sure, you could say "innocent until proven guilty", but really in most cases, exoneration is just a finding of "not guilty" not "innocent".

  • ||

    I'd have to know more about the specifics of the case, but I think this is a fairly big deal.

    Is there evidence of a single person who was wrongly executed? I remember when I was in high school debate, I'd always hear the argument that "so-and-so was saved at the last minute" and (the sophists that we were) we'd respond that the system works, and that there should be at least *one* person who was proven to be wrongly executed, if in fact the system is "corrupt".

    @Ron Hardin:
    Death penalty advocates allow for innocents to be murdered by the state? I didn't know that.

    Proving that someone was "innocent" is irrelevant. If the DNA evidence was used in convicting someone of guilt, and we can determine that that evidence was incorrect, then the case against that person falls accordingly. Executing a person who is "not guilty" is just as evil as executing an "innocent" person.

  • ||

    Irrelevant or not, that is what everyone on this panel is saying, most importantly in the main story.
    I have seen no evidence that DNA was used in the early eighties to prove his guilt. But, then, I can find no hard dates of when his initial conviction was. The first DNA testing was done in 1990, which leaves little time for conviction and all the requisite appeals.
    Also, I believe you are misinterpreting the testing that has been done. The only DNA testing to date only stated that he was within 2 percent of the population. I suppose that could be wrong, but a negative finding now would not necessarily invalidate that result, it would only show that he may have been within 2% but not .001% (or whatever that percent is).
    When I was referring to "not guilty" I was talking about legal matters, not truth. It just means the state has failed to prove guilt, not that the person is not guilty. In my opinion, equivocating executing a person who is "not guilty" with executing an "innocent" person is tantamount to saying it is evil to execute anybody, which is a legitimate position. But then again, I am one who believe proof is more of a asymptote than an absolute. A description only approaches the truth, but does not coincide.
    In any case, no one will be found either "innocent" or "not guilty" due to these tests.

  • ||

    dang, "everyone" in my first paragraph is too strong of a word. Please read "lots of people" instead.

  • ||


    Your reference to a scenario where a videotape absolving a killer after conviction, but being unable to present it in appeals does not hold water.

    In the days of the 21 day rule, a felony convicted defendant had the opportunity to present evidence challenging their conviction in federal court. In the case of Roger Coleman, he had that opportunity in early 1992 with 4th Circuit western district Judge Glen Williams.

    Williams looked at the material presented by Coleman's attorneys. This evidence included the DNA tests by their _own_ expert, Dr. Ed Blake (which said Coleman could not be eliminated from a group of 2/10th of one percent of the population that could have killed Wanda McCoy), as well as evidence on blood type documentation for the individual Coleman's attorneys tried to paint as the "real killer". The documentation on the latter showed the other man did not have the blood type that was found at the scene of the crime.

    Williams concluded that Coleman did not have a "colorable shade of innocence" and the evidence against him "now was as strong, if not stronger, than at the time trial".

    Additionally, national news media organizations left out circumstances of the crime.

    - Coleman did not have to ford a raging flooded Slate Creek to reach McCoy's home from his parked vehicle. He just walked across a bridge downstream, a bridge later driven across by Wanda's husband returning from work. This bridge was never acknowledged in mainstream national media reports on the case.

    - Coleman had a prior conviction for attempted rape of a Grundy resident at gunpoint in 1977, in which he was caught red handed when the woman escaped and alerted authorities. While awaiting trial, Coleman would menancingly follow the woman, Barbara Ratliff and her seven year old daughter, in town.

    - There weren't any signs of forced entry at the McCoy home. Wanda was a very shy woman and would only have opened the door at night for her father, her husband (both of whom had credible alibis) and brother-in-law, Roger Coleman.

    - Coleman unexpectedly went to visit a female acquaintance about an hour before the McCoy killing, but left immediately upon discovering her husband was present. It has been speculated that this woman, Sandra Stiltner, was Coleman's original intended victim.

    - Kitty Behan, Coleman's post-conviction attorney, had to pay a sizeable out-of-court settlement to the man she maliciously accused of being the 'real killer' (who turned out to have the wrong blood type). If she were so certain of his involvement at that point, surely she would have stuck to her guns and followed it through to trial.

    I've been to Grundy and explored the crime scene area first hand as well as read the record in this case. The right man was arrested, convicted and executed for this terrible crime - it was Roger Coleman.

  • ||

    Death penalty advocates allow for innocents to be murdered by the state? I didn't know that.

    There are two arguments for that statement (that I know of)-

    One is from the point of view that since humans are fallable and imperfect, it follows that our system of justice, no matter how careful, is also fallable.

    The other is statistical, that if the probability of an event happening is greater than zero, then the probability that it *will* happen is 100%.

    So unless someone believes that humans are 100% infallable, and that the probability of a mistake being made (past and future) in a death penalty case is absolutely, positively 0%, then they must be willing to accept that at some point past or future, an innocent person has or will be put to death collectively by all of us.

  • ||

    VA Justice: Your evidence seems convincing, but if the technology exists to prove Coleman's guilt for sure, why not do it?

  • ||

    VA Justice-

    In that case, in a few weeks or months you will be further vindicated by the results of the DNA tests.

  • ||

    RE the 21 day rule, it is my understanding that federal courts would not consider evidence not accepted by a state court. They would only consider the merits of what was presented and whether the trial in state court was conducted in a consitutional manner. They would not permit new evidence.

    Also, if over 100 people have been exonerated and taken off death row (this does not include rape and other non-capital cases)because of DNA testing what does that say about the US record of execution of innocents prior to DNA testing. Logic would seem to say that a large number of innocent people were executed by the american governments.

  • ||

    so what are the results?

  • ||

    HMMMM. What do you know? DNA proves AGAIN he's as guilty as the rest of the evidence already proved one before. Lets all stop trying to find ways of keeping murderers on the street. Without the death penalty- he'd be out again and rape or kill again. Laws only work if people have a resonable expectation that they will not only be caught breaking them, but suffer punishment. We increasingly try to tell the part of society lacking enough moral strength to do the "RIGHT" thing, "Do what you want, we'll find an excuse to get you off!" There becomes NO INCENTIVE to follow society's laws. How can we justify arguing loopholes for someone everyone knows is guilty to begin with? Have we lost all intelligence here?


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