- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

Thanks to new DNA tests, we now have confirmation that executed murderer Roger Keith Coleman killed his 19-year-old sister-in-law, Wanda McCoy, in 1981. This means anti-death penalty activists still haven’t been able to find a case where the system is known to have sent an innocent person to his death.

Whether it was a moment of conscience or a gesture of 2008 presidential ambitions we’ll probably never know, but the news comes because outgoing Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat who supports the death penalty, last week ordered a re-examination of DNA evidence in the famous case in which Coleman was convicted of raping and murdering his wife’s sister. Miss McCoy’s body was found partially dismembered in her home in the small Buchanan County coal-mining town of Grundy, Va.

The murderer stirred anti-death-penalty activists with his proclamations — up to the very moments before his 1992 electrocution — that he was innocent. Time magazine featured him on its cover with the headline: “This man might be innocent. This man is due to die.” A few minutes before his death, Coleman proclaimed, “An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight.” A crusading anti-death-penalty activist and divinity-school graduate, James McCloskey, took up his cause. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was inundated with calls and letters urging a pardon. Pope John Paul II attempted to intervene to spare Coleman’s life. All the drama suggested a case of misapplied justice. Mr. Wilder declined to halt the execution, as did the courts.

This week, the matter is put definitively to rest. Coleman’s claims of innocence is now known to have been a lie within an infinitesimal fraction of certainty. The test examined a swab of semen found in the victim’s vagina. The results, released Thursday by Toronto’s Centre of Forensic Sciences, concluded that the probability that the DNA belongs to someone other than Coleman is “1 in 19 million.”

“I now know that I was wrong,” Mr. McCloskey told reporters this week. “Indeed, this is a bitter pill to swallow,” he said, calling the results — and the knowledge that Coleman so successfully deceived him — “a kick in the stomach.”

Mr. Warner’s re-examination of the Coleman case is the first ever such re-examination of an executed murderer’s case. It is likely to be followed by others around the country. No one knows what future tests will indicate, but this one joins the long list of cases in which an executed convict turns out to have been guilty of the crime after all. The system worked in Coleman’s case, as it has in so many, many others.

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