Of course this came as no surprise to the lawyer who prosecuted him, the jurors or the family of Wanda McCoy, the sister-in-law he raped and murdered in 1981. They knew that the evidence against him, both direct and circumstantial, was overwhelming. They also knew what readers or viewers of the breathless “What If?” pieces were not told -– that blood serology testing that was as good a science as they had 25 years ago put Coleman within one in a hundred people who could have murdered McCoy. Then, after being sentenced to death, Coleman’s team of lawyers enlisted Dr. Edward Blake, a brilliant DNA scientist now best known for his work with Barry Scheck’s Innocence Project. Blake used DQ-alpha DNA testing in 1990 that narrowed the field down to two-hundredths of a percent.
But from all the fuss you would have thought Coleman’s exoneration was just around the corner.
The conventional wisdom was that Virginia officials had fought post-execution DNA testing, fearing they’d be exposed for executing an innocent. In reality the only DNA sample left remained in the control of Dr. Blake, who absolutely refused to return it to Virginia authorities, even though that state’s forensics lab is considered one of the best in the country. Blake, while his scientific acumen is unquestioned, is prone to wild conspiracy theories (more on a spectacular example later), and even defied a Virginia court order requiring the return of the DNA swab.
Over the 13 years since his execution Coleman has emerged as an earnest coal miner protesting his innocence. “"An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight," Coleman said in a statement just moments before he was put to death. "When my innocence is proven," he added, "I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have."
Reverend Jim Mcloskey of Centurion Ministries, who has devoted his life to exonerating wrongfully convicted inmates, took up Coleman’s cause with great vigor. After outgoing Governor Mark Warner negotiated with Blake to have the DNA tested by a “neutral” Canadian lab, McCloskey told reporters he’d never been “so excited.” He was utterly convinced of Coleman’s innocence and sincerity.
I kept asking reporters, who called me for comment on what I would say when Coleman was found to be innocent, to ask McCloskey and other Coleman supporters not what they THOUGHT the test was going to show, but what they HOPED for. As someone who supports capital punishment in rare appropriate cases I was both intellectually and emotionally pulling for verification that Virginia had executed a guilty man. What I suspected was that many Coleman supporters were really HOPING that the state had killed an innocent man, which defines the perversity of many zealots who call capital punishment “state sanctioned murder.”
Now to be fair, McCloskey seems to be a genuinely sincere activist who has deep moral, social, and religious reasons for his opposition to the death penalty. And he issued a remarkably honest statement after the test results came in January 12, expressing his bitter disappointment that he had been lied to and had put so much stock in Coleman’s fevered protestations of innocence. He said he was "numbed by this new truth that has been revealed" and was "mystified" that Coleman had allowed so many people to believe in his innocence - and work so hard to try to prove his innocence - in spite of his guilt.
McCloskey concluded after investigating the case and constructing a timeline of the crime and Coleman's actions the day of the murder that he did not have enough time. "That's the basis on which I primarily believed in his innocence," McCloskey, whose organization has helped to win freedom for three dozen inmates either on death row or serving lengthy sentences, said Thursday. "He had to be a ninja to do it. But he did it."
Less forthcoming was Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the “Innocence Project.” "This doesn't change the equation at all," Neufeld said. “One cannot suggest for a moment that one case represents a system," he said. "There are literally dozens of cases in which the defendants asserted their innocence in which there is physical evidence that could be tested.”
What Neufeld didn’t admit was that time and time again, when he and partner Barry Scheck have insisted that someone would be totally cleared by the DNA testing that they ridiculed at the OJ Simpson trial, the results have been totally incriminating instead.
These cases appear on the media radar only during the first, pre-testing phase. There was Ricky McGinn, featured on the cover of the June 13, 2000 issue of NEWSWEEK with the customary speculation that more advanced DNA testing than existed when he was convicted and sentenced to death for the rape and murder of his 12-year-old step-daughter Stephanie would “exonerate” him. Then-Texas Governor George Bush granted a 30-day reprieve for the new testing, and then you never heard about McGinn again . . . because the tests proved he was indeed completely guilty.
At about the same time another Scheck client, Vincent Barbieri, whose Italian-American ethnicity earned him hero status in Europe despite his conviction for the rape-murder of Sara Wisnonsky, claimed that some fingernail scrapings found in the court clerk’s office would show that while he had consensual sex with the victim, someone ELSE had killed her. Appearing on CNN’s “Burden of Proof” TV show I asked Barbieri’s brother what he would think if the test showed Barbieri was guilty. “I wouldn’t believe them,” his brother answered. That story also sank like a stone after the DNA testing confirmed Barbieri’s guilt.
One of the more bizarre cases involved a Scheck client named Keri Kotler who had been convicted in New York of rape. Dr. Blake, who by then was running essentially a boutique lab for Scheck, produced DNA tests that appeared to clear Kotler. The prosecutor in the case was convinced of Kotler’s guilt but agreed to drop the charges in the face of Blake’s findings. Scheck even got Kotler $1.7 million in compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. Then, after Kotler’s release, another rape took place and this time the DNA evidence left on the victim was indisputable: It was Kotler’s. Scheck and Blake were so unwilling to concede that they may have been involved in a wrongful exoneration that they seriously suggested that police might have somehow accumulated Kotler’s bodily fluids and planted them at the crime scene.
Coleman’s case is only the latest to prove that in the vastly overwhelming number of convictions subjected to years, even decades of scrutiny by appeals courts and activists who are looking for the legendary innocent executed man, juries and the legal system got it right the first time.
Maybe someday we can start having an honest debate in this country over the morality of capital punishment rather than constantly refuting the chimera of the wrongfully convicted.
I'm quoted in these articles on the case:
- Robert Tanner, The Associated Press, DNA test confirms guilt in 1992 execution, The Oregonian, January 13, 2006
- Maria Glod and Michael D. Shear, DNA Tests Confirm Guilt of Executed Man, Washington Post, Friday, January 13, 2006
- Steve Mills, New DNA tests affirm guilt of executed man, Chicago Tribune, Thursday, January 12, 2006