- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

RICHMOND — With less than two weeks left in his term, time is running out for Gov. Mark Warner to decide whether to order DNA testing in a nearly quarter-century-old murder case — a move that could determine if Virginia executed an innocent man in 1992.

If the tests show Roger Keith Coleman did not rape and murder his sister-in-law in 1981, it would mark the first time in the United States an executed person is scientifically proven innocent, say death-penalty opponents, who are keenly aware that such a result could sway public opinion their way.

“I think it would be the final straw for a lot of people who are on the fence on the death penalty,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the District-based Death Penalty Information Center.

An October Gallup Poll shows 64 percent of Americans still support the death penalty. But that’s the lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.

Mr. Warner, a Democrat considered a presidential contender for 2008, hopes to finalize negotiations over how the test would be conducted before his term ends Jan. 14, said spokesman Kevin Hall.

Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of 19-year-old Wanda McCoy, his wife’s sister, who was found raped, stabbed and nearly beheaded in her home in the Southwestern Virginia coal-mining town of Grundy.

The case drew international attention as the well-spoken and media-savvy Coleman pleaded his case on talk shows, in magazines and newspapers. Time magazine featured the coal miner on its cover. Pope John Paul II intervened to try and block the execution.

Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s office was flooded with thousands of phone calls and letters of protest from around the world.

Coleman’s attorneys argued he didn’t have time to commit the crime, that tests showed semen from two men was found inside Miss McCoy and that another man bragged about murdering her.

Despite the controversy, Coleman was executed on May 20, 1992, maintaining his innocence until the end.

“An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight,” the 33-year-old said moments before he was electrocuted. “When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.”

DNA tests in 1990 placed Coleman within 2 percent of the population of those who could have produced the semen at the crime scene.

Additional blood typing narrowed Coleman to within 0.2 percent of possible perpetrators. His attorneys said the expert who conducted the test — whom they had hired — misinterpreted the results.

Four newspapers and Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey organization that investigated Coleman’s case and became convinced of his innocence, sought a court order to have the evidence retested.

After the Virginia Supreme Court declined to order the testing in 2002, Centurion Ministries asked Mr. Warner to intervene.

Mr. Warner’s decision has been held up in part because the sample is not in the state’s possession, Mr. Hall said.

The evidence is being stored in a Richmond, Calif., lab by the forensic scientist who conducted the initial DNA tests.

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