About Roger Keith Coleman
Roger Keith Coleman (November 1, 1958 – May 20, 1992) was a Grundy, Virginia, coal miner convicted and executed for the murder of his sister-in-law, Wanda McCoy. Coleman's case drew national and worldwide attention before and after his execution because of his repeated claims of innocence and support from the anti death-penalty movement. In 2006, Virginia Governor Mark Warner announced that recently re-examined DNA evidence had conclusively proven Coleman's guilt.
Nineteen-year-old Wanda McCoy was attacked in her home on March 10, 1981. She was raped, stabbed to death, and nearly beheaded. There was little sign of a struggle and it was assumed she had allowed her attacker into the house. Roger Coleman, her sister's husband, had access to the house and immediately became a suspect. Coleman, who worked in a mine, had reported to work that night but had left because he had been laid off. A fingerprint was found on the front screen door and a pry mark on the front door molding, and bloodstains inside the house. The victim had broken fingernails, cuts on the hands, and a dark, dusty substance on her body. Moreover flecks of blood on Coleman's pants were the same blood type as the victim's.
Coleman was convicted of raping and murdering McCoy in 1982.
The prosecution for the case, led by Commonwealth Attorney Michael McGlothlin, asserted:
The lack of forced entry showed McCoy knew her attacker
Coleman had been previously convicted of attempted rape
A hair found on McCoy's body was similar to Coleman's
Blood found on Coleman's clothes was McCoy's blood type
A fellow prisoner maintained that Coleman had privately confessed the crime to him
Coleman's defense maintained:
There was indeed evidence of forced entry (the pry mark on the door)
DNA tests of the semen found on the victim's body implicated more than one person
The prosecution claimed there was no struggle, but the victim had cuts, a bruise in her arm, and broken fingernails
Coleman had a documented alibi and several witnesses who gave affidavits
Coleman's initial appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court was denied, and the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari. Coleman then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Circuit Court for Buchanan County, raising several federal constitutional claims for the first time. A two day evidentiary hearing was held, the court denied all of Coleman's claims, and on September 4, 1986, the court entered its final judgment.
Coleman next appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, but this appeal was dismissed on the motion of the Commonwealth because his notice of appeal was not filed timely. Virginia Supreme Court Rules require that a notice of appeal be filed within 30 days of entry of the final judgment; Coleman's notice of appeal was filed on October 7, which was 33 days after the circuit court entered its judgment.
Federal petition for habeas corpus
After his appeal was dismissed on procedural grounds, Coleman petitioned in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia for a writ of habeas corpus. However, federal courts generally may not review a state court's denial of a federal constitutional claim if the denial is based on a state procedural default that is independent of the federal claim and is sufficient to support the prisoner's continued custody. Since Coleman was in procedural default of his appeal in state court, this was independent of his federal constitutional claims, and was adequate to support his continued custody, he was ineligible for relief in a federal habeas corpus proceeding. Although finding that Coleman was in procedural default, the District Court addressed all of his claims, finding them without merit. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the District Court's ruling, as did the Supreme Court of the United States.
Controversy and execution
In 1990, new DNA tests seemed to add to evidence against Coleman by putting him within the 2% of the population who could have committed the crime. Some argued that DNA and blood tests combined reduced this figure to 0.2%.
While he was on death row, Coleman's claims of innocence reached an international audience. Time magazine put Coleman on its cover. Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder received 13,000 calls and letters about Coleman from around the world, nearly all in favor of clemency. Wilder arranged a secret, last-minute polygraph test for Coleman, who failed. Coleman shared a final meal of cold pizza with James McCloskey, executive director of Centurion Ministries, who had been working since 1988 to prove Coleman's innocence.
On May 20, 1992, the Commonwealth of Virginia executed Roger Keith Coleman in the electric chair. As Coleman was strapped into the electric chair, he made one final declaration. "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight," he said. "When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have."
In 1998, John C. Tucker, a Chicago lawyer published the book May God Have Mercy (ISBN 0-385-33294-7) detailing legal efforts to save Coleman from the death penalty.
Subsequent examination of evidence
Centurion Ministries and four newspapers, including the Washington Post, sought to have DNA evidence from the case re-examined in 2000. In 2002 the Supreme Court of Virginia declined their request, and Centurion Ministries subsequently appealed to Virginia Governor Mark Warner.
On January 5, 2006, Warner ordered DNA evidence to be retested. The evidence was sent to the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto, which determined that his DNA matched with no exclusions and that there was only a 1-in-19-million chance of a random match. On January 12, 2006 Warner's office announced that the test results confirmed Coleman's guilt.
Significance for the anti-death penalty movement
Coleman's case was the second instance in U.S. history where DNA evidence was examined after the person in question had been executed.
Supporters who believed Coleman's innocence had expected DNA tests to exonerate Coleman. Some death penalty opponents also believed that evidence of an innocent man's execution would have a profound impact on the death penalty debate in the United States, and help accelerate a growing reluctance to use execution. However, the results prompted death penalty supporters to argue that Coleman's case instead showed that proper safeguards were in place.