Civil Liberties

Guilt Tip


The guilt or innocence of a man executed for murder is less important than adhering to legal niceties, the Virginia Supreme Court declared in late October. The court refused to use modern, highly accurate DNA testing in the case of Roger Keith Coleman, a man executed in 1992 by the Commonwealth of Virginia for the 1981 rape and murder of his sister-in-law Wanda McCoy.

The physical evidence, including semen samples, pointed strongly to Coleman's guilt. But he staunchly denied that he had murdered McCoy even as he went to his death.

The biological evidence in the Coleman case has been stored at a California testing lab for more than a decade. A group of newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, sought legal permission to have those samples tested again using today's more accurate DNA techniques. Virginia officials, including two attorneys general, fiercely resisted the request, maintaining that criminal proceedings and convictions must have judicial finality.

Much more was at stake than Coleman's guilt or innocence. Death penalty opponents have yet to find a modern U.S. case in which a demonstrably innocent person has been wrongfully executed. They believe that even one such case would dramatically reduce the American public's consistent support for the death penalty and eventually lead to its abolition. Death penalty proponents believe (and fear) exactly the same thing.

Today 26 states, including Virginia, permit access to post-conviction DNA testing, up from only two in 1999. The Virginia Supreme Court's refusal to use such testing in the Coleman case is particularly strange since the state has been the leader in using DNA to solve crimes. Since the state's DNA database opened for business in 1989, it has helped solve 900 crimes in which there were no known suspects. In addition, six Virginia inmates have been released based on post-conviction DNA testing. Nationally, 111 inmates have been released based on such tests.

In November, Virginia voters handily passed a ballot initiative for a state constitutional amendment that would make it easier for convicted felons to request modern DNA testing to prove their innocence. That amendment will not affect the Coleman case, but Gov. Mark Warner can still order that the DNA evidence be tested. Voters seem to agree that if the state is going to claim the awesome power to execute murderers, it should make every effort to insure that those it kills are in fact guilty.