All Doubt Should Be Absent in Capital Cases
By Sheryl McCarthy
Newsday, November 11, 2002
The only disputed evidence remaining in the 21-year-old rape and murder case case sits in a freezer in a California laboratory.
Suspended in water in a small plastic vial is less than a drop of liquid containing perhaps several hundred DNA molecules.
The DNA has the potential to dispel any final doubt about whether Roger Keith Coleman raped and murdered Wanda McCoy, his sister-in-law, in her home in 1981 - or whether he was wrongly convicted, as he claimed.
On Nov. 1, Virginia's Supreme Court ruled against several organizations that were seeking permission to conduct state-of-the-art DNA tests on this evidence. The clincher is that the man these tests might or might not exonerate was executed 10 years ago.
"I don't understand how any citizen could accept that decision," says Dr. Edward Blake, who runs Forensic Science Associates, the Richmond, Calif., lab where the DNA sample has resided for the last 12 years. "It [the court decision] runs counter to the underlying principles of democracy that we all take for granted and teach our children about - the public's right to know what its government institutions do."
This strange story began in the early 1990s, after Roger Keith Coleman was convicted of raping and murdering Wanda McCoy, and was sentenced to death. DNA testing didn't exist at the time of his 1982 trial. But a decade later, in an appeal for clemency, Coleman's lawyers got a judge's permission to test some semen that was found in McCoy's body - using the DNA science that was by then available.
The tests didn't exclude Coleman - in fact, they concluded that the chances of his not being the rapist/murderer were only one in 50. Combined with blood tests performed by the state, the likelihood of Coleman's not being the culprit dwindled to one in 500 - powerful evidence for the prosecution.
Clemency was denied, and Coleman was executed in 1992. But Blake has kept the DNA sample in his freezer. Recently four newspapers, including The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk and The Washington Post, and Centurion Ministries, a group that investigates possible wrongful convictions, asked the Virginia courts for permission to use state-of-the-art DNA tests on the semen sample.
Their request came after more than 100 death row inmates around the country, including six in Virginia, had been freed - in many cases because DNA evidence exonerated them. Blake told me that the material in his possession holds the possibility of establishing guilt or innocence to a virtual certainty. But faced with the prospect of knowing for sure if Coleman committed the crimes for which he was executed,the Virginia justices demurred.
They reasoned that the First Amendment doesn't give members of the public the right to test the evidence in a criminal case, and that to allow it would open the gates to all kinds of disruptions in future cases.
Blake suspects other motives. "The courts in Virginia ... aren't interested in finding out the truth," he told me. "What they are interested in is protecting the Virginia courts from being named as the first court system in this country who put their signatures to the death warrant of an innocent man."
The exoneration of an executed man would come as a bombshell big enough to explode the criminal justice system right down to its moorings. But a system that makes daily decisions about life and death has a moral obligation to know if those decisions are correct. The likelihood of Coleman's being exonerated is extremely remote. But why not find out for sure, if it's possible?
The Virginia justices look cowardly, and their actions appear political. The state's governor and attorney general have the authority to order new tests on their
own, however, and they should. Meanwhile, Blake says he's ready to perform them.It's not even that he opposes the death penalty, he told me. But what can't be tolerated, he feels, is a system that intentionally avoids the truth.