US Death Penalty Foes Aim to Exonerate Executed Man

Reuters, May 8, 2003
By Deborah Zabarenko

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Roger Coleman is dead as a doornail, executed in Virginia’s electric chair 11 years ago for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. But death penalty critics hope DNA evidence might exonerate him and call the U.S. system of capital punishment into question.

Coleman’s case is perhaps the ideal test for those who maintain that the U.S. death penalty system is fatally flawed, according to Paul Enzinna, an attorney working with the anti-death penalty group Centurion Ministries.

The death penalty is a barbaric human rights violation, rejected by a growing number of civilized countries.

America’s severely flawed ‘justice system’ has a lengthy record of wrongful convictions.

100+ innocent people have been rescued from death row.

The USA is among the very few countries that executes the mentally ill or child offenders.

‘Supporters (of the death penalty) point to the absence of concrete proof that anyone executed in the modern death penalty era was actually innocent,’ Enzinna said.

‘Roger Coleman’s case provides a unique opportunity to test this thesis. In fact, it may be the only capital case in America in which DNA evidence exists, which has not been subjected to the most discriminating testing now available.’

The evidence in question is semen collected from the vagina and rectum of murder victim Wanda McCoy, who was attacked at her home in the gritty coal-mining town of Grundy, Virginia, on March 10, 1981.

McCoy, Coleman’s sister-in-law, was raped and sodomized and died after her throat was cut. An autopsy noted wounds to her chest and throat, broken fingernails and cuts on her hands.

In a tight-knit Appalachian community like Grundy in Virginia’s hard-scrabble southwest corner, pressure to find McCoy’s killer was intense, and Coleman — who had served nearly two years in prison on an earlier attempted rape conviction that he also denied — was quickly named a suspect.


At trial in the McCoy case, he denied guilt and provided well-supported alibis for his whereabouts at the time of the murder. But a jailhouse informant said Coleman had confessed to the crime while awaiting trial, and blood evidence taken from the scene did not rule Coleman out. He was convicted in 1982.

When DNA analysis became available several years after Coleman’s trial, tests were performed on sperm cells recovered from McCoy’s vagina and were found to have come from two different men, contradicting the prosecution trial argument that Coleman acted alone. No tests were performed on DNA samples from the victim’s rectum.

The 1990 analysis found Coleman was among the approximately 2 percent of black and Caucasian men who might have deposited this sperm, and his conviction remained in place. His execution occurred on May 20, 1992.

Before and after his death sentence was carried out, Coleman’s case drew keen interest with a cover story in Time magazine featuring his picture and the headline, ‘This man might be innocent. This man is due to die.’ John C. Tucker wrote a 1997 book on the case called ‘May God Have Mercy‘.

Questions persisted among those who doubted Coleman’s guilt:

— Why was there no coal dust on McCoy’s body when Coleman’s clothes were covered with it that night?

— Why didn’t Coleman’s lawyer mention a bag of blood-soaked sheets, two shirts and a pair of scissors found near McCoy’s home after the murder?

— Why did Coleman’s clothes lack bloodstains and why were there no fingernail scratches on his body if McCoy struggled as the evidence at trial suggested?


Centurion Ministries, which has worked to free 26 people sentenced to death, pushed for an updated DNA test to settle conclusively whether Coleman committed the crime, but this was denied in the Virginia courts. The question was before Gov. Mark Warner and no decision had been made as the 11th anniversary of Coleman’s execution approached.

‘It’s important for everyone in the world to know if an innocent man was executed by the Commonwealth of Virginia for a crime he didn’t do,’ Centurion’s executive director James McCloskey said in a telephone interview from Princeton, New Jersey.

Beyond the ramifications for Virginia, McCloskey said if the DNA analysis shows Coleman to be innocent, it would prompt a new look at the ‘veracity’ of the death penalty in the United States.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington D.C., said the case could break new ground.

‘The story it might tell is that we have executed an innocent person,’ Dieter said by telephone. ‘I think it would raise the stakes in this debate.’

Beyond a national debate on capital punishment, McCloskey said he had a personal reason for pursuing the case.

‘I personally am doing this not for the death penalty movement. I’m doing it because I promised Roger Coleman the very night that he was executed that I would do everything in my power to prove that he was innocent. I promised him that and I’m trying to make good on that promise.’

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