- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

RICHMOND — Gov. Mark Warner yesterday ordered DNA evidence retested to determine whether a man convicted of rape and murder was innocent when he was executed in 1992.

If the testing shows Roger Keith Coleman did not rape and kill his sister-in-law in 1981, it will be the first time in the United States a person has been exonerated by scientific testing after his execution, according to death penalty opponents.

Mr. Warner said he ordered the tests because of technological advances that could provide a level of forensic certainty not available in the 1980s.

“This is an extraordinarily unique circumstance, where technology has advanced significantly and can be applied in the case of someone who consistently maintained his innocence until execution,” said Mr. Warner, a Democrat who leaves office Jan. 14.

“I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence,” Mr. Warner said.

Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of his wife’s sister, 19-year-old Wanda McCoy. She had been raped, stabbed and nearly beheaded in Grundy, a small coal-mining town in southwestern Virginia.

Coleman’s attorneys argued that he did not have time to commit the crime, that tests showed semen from two men was found inside Miss McCoy and that another man bragged about killing her. Coleman was executed on May 20, 1992.

“My prayers are with the family of Wanda McCoy as we take this extraordinary step,” Mr. Warner said.

Coleman’s case drew international attention. The articulate death row inmate pleaded his case on talk shows and in magazines and newspapers. He made the cover of Time magazine, and Pope John Paul II tried to block the execution. Then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was besieged with thousands of phone calls and letters of protest from around the world.

Mr. Warner, who is considering a presidential bid in 2008, has heard requests from death penalty opposition groups throughout his term to order the evidence retested.

“This is a proper action for the governor to take. It’s not right to shy away from a difficult question or even shy away from reopening cases when there is a chance that something new might be learned,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center.

Two days before Mr. Warner’s decision, Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine said he supports retesting the DNA.

“It ought to be tested,” the Democrat said on WAMU Radio.

Mr. Kaine, who takes office Jan. 14, said DNA is a “powerful thing” and that Virginia should use that technology whenever it can.

Mr. Kaine said the tests would result in one of three scenarios: That Coleman was guilty, that he was not guilty or that the DNA yields inconclusive results.

He said it is most likely Coleman was guilty. If it is found Coleman was not guilty of the murder, prosecutors must find and charge the real killer.

If the test is inconclusive, Coleman’s fate was rightly decided by the jury, which weighed other evidence, he said.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican who is next in line to be chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, also agrees with the decision. “I’ve never had a problem with information,” he said.

Staff writer Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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