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Virginia to Test DNA of Man Executed for Murder

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Results could come as soon as this week from new DNA testing to find out if an innocent man was executed in Virginia almost 14 years ago. Virginia Governor Mark Warner ordered this test, the first time a governor has called for DNA analysis after someone was put to death. At issue is the case of Roger Keith Coleman who was found guilty of murder in 1981. Here's NPR's Anthony Brooks.

ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:

In March 1981, 19-year-old Wanda McCoy was brutally murdered in her house in the coal mining town of Grundy, Virginia. She was raped, stabbed in the throat and practically decapitated. Police focused on her brother-in-law, Roger Keith Coleman, a coal miner who'd once gone to jail for attempted rape. Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death. For 10 years, with the help of lawyers and supporters, Coleman insisted he was innocent. But in 1992, his appeals ran out.

(Soundbite of 1992 statement)

Unidentified Man: The execution of Roger Keith Coleman has been carried out in the manner prescribed by the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Mr. JIM McCLOSKEY (Founder, Centurion Ministries): I promised Roger Coleman an hour before he was executed, when I was with him right outside his death cell, that I would do all in my power to prove that he was innocent.

BROOKS: That's Jim McCloskey, speaking about four years ago to NPR about the case. McCloskey founded Centurion Ministries which works to get the wrongly convicted off death row. He's convinced that Coleman was innocent and that DNA can prove it. At issue is a small vial that contains a few drops of fluid from a vaginal swab taken from Wanda McCoy the night she was murdered. McCloskey has been fighting for years to get it tested with modern DNA analysis.

Mr. McCLOSKEY: I would hope that we all want to discover the truth of the matter. What's the argument for this not to be done?

BROOKS: For years, state officials pointed out that DNA tests conducted in 1990, which were more primitive than they are today, did not exonerate Coleman. In 2002, Virginia's then attorney general, Jerry Kilgore, said the case was closed.

Mr. JERRY KILGORE (Former Virginia Attorney General): We had to some day look to finality of judgment. We feel certain in Virginia, the right man was put to death in this case, that he committed the crimes and that he was punished appropriately.

BROOKS: But now, almost 14 years after Coleman's execution, Virginia Governor Mark Warner, a Democrat, has ordered that the evidence be retested with modern DNA analysis. In a statement, the governor called this a unique circumstance where technology has advanced significantly and could provide a definitive result not available at the time of trial.

Mr. McCLOSKEY: This is actually hugely precedent setting.

BROOKS: That's Jim McCloskey again, who praises Warner for being the first governor in the nation to order post-execution DNA testing.

Mr. McCLOSKEY: Governor Warner is not afraid of the truth. Did Roger Coleman rape and kill Wanda McCoy or was he an innocent man who was executed for the crimes of others?

Ms. DIANE CLEMENS (Director, Justice For All): I think that this test is nothing more than publicity.

BROOKS: That's Diane Clemens, director of Justice For All, a pro-death penalty advocacy group. She says she doubts the new DNA analysis will be conclusive, but she says it will be used to push a political agenda that undermines the criminal justice system.

Ms. CLEMENS: It forgets the victim, that woman that he murdered, the process of the trial, the jury's verdict, the evidence, the appellate process, because of anti-death penalty activists who simply want to make a splash with headlines.

BROOKS: While it's true that anti-death penalty advocates are cheering, Virginia Governor Mark Warner, who ordered the test, is pro-death penalty. But he has ordered post-conviction reviews of thousands of old criminal cases from the '70s and '80s before modern DNA analysis was available.

Mr. PETER NEUFELD (The Innocence Project): This too should become a model for other states.

BROOKS: Peter Neufeld of The Innocence Project says whether or not Roger Coleman is exonerated, Governor Warner has put in motion a process that could raise new doubts about the fairness of the death penalty.

Mr. NEUFELD: Once you begin to start retesting evidence in dozens of other capital cases where people have been executed across this nation, you will find innocent people. And once you find innocent people who have been executed, certainly that's going to leave a bad taste in people's mouths.

BROOKS: Critics of the death penalty have long argued that a flawed system has resulted in the execution of the innocent, but in fact that's never been proved. Results of the new DNA test in the case of Roger Keith Coleman could come any day and finally answer the question: Did the state of Virginia execute an innocent man?

Anthony Brooks, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.