Roger Keith Coleman

This is a case in which has always fascinated me a bit and yet I cannot say for certain why. It could be because in the end it likely proved to us just how cunning and manipulative a person could be; it could be because if the results had been different I may look at the death penalty different today.  Maybe today it seems more relevant because of all of the media hype surrounding the Steven Avery case.  Just as today people seem to be clamoring for Steven Avery's release (although most simply contend that the investigation and trial were unfair), in the early 1990's the same was going on in the Roger Coleman case. There were petitions asking for his release; he was all over the media, including a cover on Time magazine.  Roger Coleman was the "spokesperson" for innocent convictions (and later executions).  He was the one man everyone was convinced was innocent.  He was the symbol to show the world how flawed the death penalty is.  The problem is, he actually was guilty.

As a reader, you have often heard me speak of the death penalty and my views, which for the most part are pretty mundane. I am not an advocate nor an opponent of the death penalty.  That is not to say that I have not had issues with either side either.  I am more of a fence sitter for the most part.  I have said that I believe that the death penalty should be reserved for those in which there is absolutely no question of their guilt and likely for those that are the "worse of the worse." Do I believe that innocent people have been executed? Absolutely and I do not believe that anyone can say otherwise.  You simply cannot look at groups like The Innocence Project or at the scores of people who have been exonerated over the years and not believe that there has been an innocent person put to death.  Add to this cases like those of George Stinney who was executed in 1944 and exonerated some 70 years later.  Look at the case of the West Memphis 3 in which one of those men was on death row and yet they were released (although, not necessarily exonerated) in 2012.  If you look among the stories I have blogged here you will find the case of Cameron "Todd" Willingham who was executed in 2004 in Texas for the arson fire that killed his children.  I openly question his guilt and conviction that led to his execution.  It will likely never truly be proven if Willingham was indeed guilty or not since DNA is not necessarily something that can be used in that case.  The "evidence" that was used against him to prove arson has been dis-proven however but it is unlikely it will ever go further than that.

On March 10, 1981  nineteen year old Wanda McCoy was killed in her home in Grundy Virginia.  She was raped, stabbed and beaten to death.  She was found by her husband, Brad when he returned home from work.  Wanda had been stabbed so much she was nearly decapitated. Soon her brother in law Roger Coleman was on the police radar.  Prosecutors would contend that the perpetrator was likely someone who Wanda knew because they would find no signs of forced entry.  The defense would dispute this saying there were pry marks on the door but I could find nothing more than their contention of this and question the fact.  Coleman was married to Wanda's sister, Patricia at the time and had access to the McCoy home.  Coleman had also been convicted in 1977 for the attempted rape of another woman.  So, his history, proximity and access to Wanda made him a quick suspect.  

As with many of the cases I speak about here this one was committed in that crucial time period where DNA was not available yet but it could be conceived in the future.  Investigators were able to do blood typing and look at hairs and fibers.  Prosecutors would claim that two pubic hairs were found on Wanda that were consistent with Roger Coleman.  They would also contend that Roger's blood type match that found in semen in Wanda, as well as that her blood type was found on clothing he admitted to wearing the night of the crime. Prosecutors would also present a witness at trial who had been a fellow inmate with Coleman who would claim that he confessed to the crime as well as provide unpublished information.  The defense obviously had a job to counter this evidence.  They would claim that there was in fact evidence of a forced entry, claimed, through witnesses that Coleman had an alibi and would argue that the blood evidence was not necessarily proof of anything.  I do want to point out two things here.  First, it was determined that Coleman had Type B blood type which is one of the rarer types.  Secondly, and although admittedly I did not do as much research on this case as I do in many others (due to the fact that the issue for me was less about the crime but all that occurred after), as I recall in many of the interviews and things I saw on this case Coleman at some point tried to claim that he'd had sex with Wanda within just a few days of the crime but claimed of course that it was consensual.  This was likely, what would later be considered a ploy, to explain how he was connected to the semen found in Wanda.  In 1982 however Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death.

For the next decade, as Coleman sat on death row, he proclaimed his innocence and as in most cases he had those fighting for him also.  One of the biggest contention first came when one of his appeals was filed a mere three days too late and was denied a review.  Most would argue, and I cannot say I disagree, that this was not the fault of Coleman but of his attorneys and many felt that the denial was unfair to Coleman.  In his defense it does seem that he did not have very adequate representation when you add this to the fact that it was not until his second appeal was filed that many Constitutional issues were raised. Once again this was not a fault of Coleman but that is now how the law works. An initial appeal is to contain all the pertinent information that is being considered basically as far back as the defense cares to go, well, at least as long as those things were brought up in the initial case.  This would mean that the initial defense attorney may have attempted to bring in some sort of evidence at trial, be it what they considered an unlawful search, or the sanity of their client, and the presiding judge had ruled against them.  All of these things, including the most common, inadequate representation, are things that are brought up in a first appeal.  Any subsequent appeals can only pertain to either new evidence or things that were ruled on in the first appeal.  While there must be standards in place to prevent frivolous appeals in which people can content whatever, whenever, it could conceivable be unfair to a defendant.  In 1990 early phases of DNA testing were available and the evidence was tested.  The results showed that only 2% of the population could have raped Wanda McCoy and Coleman fell into that 2%.  That was not enough for supporters of Coleman. 

By early 1992 the media had gotten a hold of this case and as I said, much like the Steven Avery issue today, there was an enormous amount of publicity.  It seemed that Roger Coleman was on every television show or magazine cover talking about his innocence and his lawyers and death penalty opponents were right next to him discussing how the state of Virginia was preparing to "murder" an innocent person.  Likely because of all of this publicity, on the day of his scheduled execution, May 20, 1992 the then governor of Virginia, Douglas Wilder, who had received many requests to review the case and delay the execution ordered that a polygraph test be given to Coleman.  Once again, I cannot argue with Coleman supporters in the idea that this polygraph test should have been given at this time or given any credible weight, although as we all know they are not allowed in a court of law anyway.  However, according to the governor, as well as the prosecution, Coleman seemingly failed this test. For those convinced of Coleman's guilt this was all that they needed.  For his supporters the timing of the test was wholly unfair.  I have to agree with the latter group on this one.  If you know anything about polygraph tests, the first thing you know is that they are not completely reliable, hence whey they are not allowed in courts. Secondly, you also likely know that stress and nervousness affect the results.  It would be totally unreasonable to believe that Coleman was not stressed over the fact that in just a few hours the state planned to execute him and that the results of this test could make that decision.  In my opinion this was more of a political strategy than anything.  So much had been brought up in the media by this time and questions were being asked mainly based from his supporters that to perform the test and get a result that he had failed would give the state more leverage in saying they did all they could before they executed a guilty man.  

The polygraph test did very little however when it came to Coleman's supporters.  In fact, it tended to bring in more support for Coleman.  Coleman himself egged this on when he was executed as his last words were "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight.  When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have." This of course became much of a motto and a push for his supporters.  It was now their goal to prove that an innocent man had been executed and it would seem that even more people joined this bandwagon.  

As the science behind DNA testing progressed over the years there were court filings asking that the DNA from Wanda's case be re-tested using more modern methods.  Supporters claimed that it would finally prove the inadequacy of the death penalty.  From supporter standpoint it would once and for all prove Coleman's innocence and the irreversible errors made by carrying out the death penalty.  Publicly opponents of testing  would claim things such as it was a waste of time and money to test a case that had already been settled in their minds, and obviously could not be changed (unless they considered the monetary damage it could have caused if he was found innocent) and there were plenty of other cases that were still active, with defendants that were alive that  obviously that needed to be tested.  The courts seemingly agreed with this over and over despite that allegedly other groups of people had offered to pay for the testing. Opponents also likely argued that it had been tested in 1990, and while they could not truly argue that the process had not progressed, they felt the 1990 results were certain enough. Coleman supporters would claim over the next several years that there was no reason for the state to deny the request unless of course they feared the results to which supporters would later claim that that doubt alone should have prevented Coleman's execution.  

Then in 2006 then governor, Mark Warner decide to grant a request and have the results tested.  Many believe that he did so because he was considering an upcoming Presidential run and really either way running the tests was a win/win for him.  If they ran the tests and they found that Coleman were innocent then he could garner the support of anti-death penalty voters; If they ran the tests and found him guilty, he could show that the justice system worked properly and the state had not executed an innocent man.  Supporters were elated. However, that elation did not last long because the result revealed that there was only a 1 in 19 million chances that someone other than Coleman could have committed the crime.  

One of the things that I found most surprising about the results from this case was the large acceptance from his supporters.  In cases like this it is common to hear new theories of contamination or skewed results somehow.  Even Coleman's lawyers publicly seemed to accept the results and swallowed crow. They admitted feeling duped by Coleman, as did many of his supporters.  In the end sure the results helped the pro-death penalty people but it was a horrible blow for the other side.  Coleman was able to manipulate people into believing in his innocence.  Did he do it on the premises that he never thought DNA would progress enough to say for certain or did he do it just for the publicity and attention he got while he was still alive?  For me I believe it was much more likely the latter.  His manipulative ways proved he was much more evil than people suspected and he had no way of knowing if his behavior would have prevented other people from being believed, who may actually been innocent. 

Comments

  1. The thing about the DNA in the Coleman case is that all it proves is that, at some point between the last time Wanda McCoy showered and the time she was murdered, Coleman had intercourse with her. I am very surprised no one made this point at the time the DNA was re-tested. (Or since, for that matter)

    IIRC (and I have researched this case over the years), there was genetic material from THREE MEN recovered from the body in Coleman's case. One of those men was Coleman.... one of them was presumably her husband, but it is unknown who the third man was, because, as far as everyone knows, no one ever bothered to try to find out.

    It is known that another man in the area made a statement a few years afterwards that could be taken as an accidental confession that he actually murdered Wanda McCoy, and that the person this confession was made to was found deceased in her home a few days after talking to police about it.

    Also, Coleman and McCoy had been engaged at one point, and it was an open secret in Grundy that they had continued carrying on after her marriage.

    I think that the Authorities were so obsessed with it being Coleman from the get go, that they deliberately neglected to pursue any other possible leads in this case. To me, the whole thing has always smacked of a small, secluded, backwards town conspiring to railroad a local loser to the electric chair. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the jurors knew the truth but convicted Roger anyway.

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