Friday, September 16, 2005

Roger Keith Coleman’s last words moments before the state of Virginia put him to death May 20, 1992.

An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven, I hope Americans will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.

The following is an article published by the Quixote Center in Hyattsville, Maryland.


On May 20, 1992, the State of Virginia, with the acquiescence of the federal government, executed Roger Keith Coleman in the electric chair. New evidence, including evidence that another man committed the crime, failed to stop his execution. The state and federal governments failed to secure Coleman's right to a fair and impartial trial. A missed deadline barred appellate review and resulted in his execution.


Wanda McCoy was attacked in, or just outside, her home on March 10, 1981. She was then raped and murdered. There was little sign of a struggle and, as she seldom opened the door when she was home alone, it was assumed she had allowed her attacker to come into the house. Roger Coleman, her brother-in-law, had access to the house and immediately became a suspect. Coleman, who worked in a mine, had reported to work that night but had left when his shift was dismissed.

A fingerprint was found on the front screen door and a pry mark on the front door molding, and bloodstains inside the house. The victim had broken fingernails, cuts on the hands, and a dark, dusty substance on her body. The autopsy report recorded wounds to her chest and throat, but did not mention defensive wounds on her hands or a bruise on her arm. Limited forensic testing was done.

Salient Issues

Coleman had a well-documented list of his whereabouts on the night of the murder and several alibi witnesses who gave affidavits.

The state's own timeline of events the night of the murder suggested it was unlikely Coleman could have committed the murder.

Physical evidence from the crime scene – including soil on McCoy's hands, an unanalyzed fingerprint on the front screen door of her house, and a pry mark on a door molding – contradicted the prosecution's theory that the victim willingly allowed her murderer to enter her home, a theory used to convict Coleman. T

The prosecution claimed that there was little sign of a struggle. However, the victim had defensive wounds, including cuts on her hands, broken fingernails, and a bruise on her upper arm but the defense did not introduce this evidence.

Testing of semen did not rule out Coleman but later forensic opinions based on more sophisticated DNA testing indicated a second person may have participated in the crime.

At trial, the prosecution presented evidence given by a jailhouse informant who alleged Coleman had confessed to the crime. The informant was released from jail soon after testifying.Another man later stated that he had killed Wanda McCoy. This man had a history of violence and rape.

Coleman's chances to appeal his conviction in state and federal courts were restricted when his lawyers missed a deadline for filing his original appeal in state court by one day.

The Trial

There was intense pressure in the community for an arrest in the McCoy murder, and police were frustrated at the lack of evidence tying Coleman to the crime. Coleman had been convicted of attempted rape several years earlier despite his denial of involvement and having an alibi. He served almost two years in prison and was released with a record as a sex offender. This affected his trial for the McCoy murder. Furthermore, McCoy's husband had immediately named Coleman as a likely suspect because of his access to the McCoy household as Wanda's brother-in-law.

An expert for the state examined two hairs taken from the victim's body, compared them with Coleman's, and found they were consistent with his hair type. Coleman's attorney did not present effective challenges to this testimony. The state presented a seemingly impossible series of events between Coleman's arrival at the mine and the victim's husband's discovery of her body, but the prosecution was able to point out some uncertainties in testimony of alibi witnesses. Blood type testing did not rule Coleman out, nor did it show he had a role in the murder. A jailhouse informant claimed Coleman had confessed to him while Coleman was in the county jail awaiting trial. No other suspect was asked to provide hair or blood samples for comparison with those recovered from the victim's body. Roger Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death.

Appeals Confusion and disagreements about deadlines in the state courts led to a judge's order refusing the state habeas corpus petition. Coleman's lawyers had 30 days under Virginia law to file an appeal to the refusal. Their calculations were different than those of the state. They sent the appeal by regular, not certified mail, and it arrived after the 30-day deadline. Coleman's appeal was, therefore, dismissed without review. This ruling crippled Coleman's subsequent attempts to have his claims heard. The U.S. Supreme Court supported the state's position that the missed deadline precluded federal review of his habeas claims. Clemency was refused partly because of the certainty with which the courts refused the appeals. Before Coleman's scheduled execution, Governor Douglas Wilder agreed to grant clemency if Coleman passed a polygraph test. Coleman failed the test just hours before he was executed.


Roger Keith ColemanLUSION was executed despite compelling evidence of his innocence. Coleman's attorneys had made claims about a biased jury, ineffective assistance of counsel, and exculpatory evidence withheld by the state, all of which would have been constitutional violations.

The merits of these claims were never considered because his lawyers missed a deadline by one day. He was executed without full review. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun observed in his dissent, "one searches the majority's opinion in vain for any mention of Coleman's right to a criminal proceeding free from constitutional defect or his interest in finding a forum for his constitutional challenge to his conviction and sentence of death.

Present Situation

A Virginia court was asked in 2000 to order new DNA testing on physical evidence. An independent laboratory is still holding the samples, and the State of Virginia has demanded their return. Fearing that the state may never make appropriate use of the samples, the lab has refused to release them. A state court hearing denied Attorney General Jerry Kilgore's request to have DNA returned. Gov. Mark Warner has the authority to order the test but has refused to do so.

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