Wanda Fay McCoy, 19, was raped and murdered on the night of March 10, 1981, in Buchanan County, Va. Her throat was slashed so severely that she was nearly decapitated.
Although there were no witnesses to the ghastly deed, Roger Keith Coleman, McCoy’s brother-in-law, was convicted for committing these crimes.
Roger Coleman, 33, was executed in Virginia’s electric chair on May 20, 1992. In the 10 years following Coleman’s last breath, his case has become a poster child for death-penalty opponents. A review of the record of the Coleman trial suggests that aspects of the prosecution’s case were uncomfortably shaky. On the other hand, it’s understandable that people who knew him would have suspected the squirrelly Coleman.
Coleman’s fate is an example of the sort of case, with its haunting doubts, that has pushed capital punishment into more scrutiny in recent years. What has moved this particular case back into the news is that a group of newspapers is pushing the court system for a new DNA test to be performed on frozen spermatozoa from the original crime scene that’s still being held in California.
That the evidence still exists is something of a fluke. Nonetheless, many say the new procedure would be infinitely more conclusive than the primitive DNA tests performed 12 years ago. So the controversy could finally be put to rest, except for the continuing efforts of the Virginia attorney general’s office.
Thus, Jerry Kilgore is preventing the proof positive while claiming he’s protecting the interests of the commonwealth. His predecessor, failed gubernatorial aspirant Mark Earley, chose the same tack. For whatever reasons, it’s been a matter of party line to resist the new test.
Still, as this matter climbs its way through the courts, Kilgore must be wishing that frozen evidence could somehow evaporate in the midst of a California power failure. Defending the Earley position on the Coleman case can’t really help Kilgore in the public’s eye. But it sure could turn sour and make him look bad.
In Virginia, owing to our quirky rules and practices, it’s a little bit easier to execute people than it has been in some other places. Down the road, an unlucky Virginia governor or attorney general may sound like a barbarian for defending how this commonwealth’s legal system has handled capital punishment. That hit is waiting for somebody. Will it be Kilgore?
On March 5, 1992, Roger de la Burde was found dead in his Powhatan County home, not far from Richmond; his own pistol was at his side. A bullet wound to the right side of his forehead testified conclusively to the cause of death, but not necessarily to the identity of the shooter.
On the spot, the local sheriff’s office surmised that the 60-year-old man, a tobacco company scientist and self-styled art dealer, had committed suicide. Eight months later, de la Burde’s longtime girlfriend, Beverly Anne Monroe, then 54, was convicted of his murder. In those eight months the gears of Virginia’s justice system ground up the known and suppressed facts of this case and spat out its product — a decision that U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams later called “a monument to prosecutorial indiscretions and mishandling.”
On April 5, 2002, Judge Williams set Monroe free from prison. That move threw the matter directly into Jerry Kilgore’s lap. His office promptly knee-jerked and filed an appeal.
In fighting to return Beverly Monroe to prison — she had served nearly a third of her 22-year sentence and was eligible for parole — Kilgore probably risks more than he does with the DNA business. After all, Monroe is alive and kicking. If Kilgore comes off as seeming more interested in backing up the methods of a rogue investigator than in seeking justice for one and all, the sitting AG could end up playing the heavy in a story with some long legs.
Judge Williams called the tactics used against Beverly Monroe by the lead investigator for the state police “deceitful, manipulative, and inappropriate.” In the same opinion he later wrote: “The prosecution committed several violations of Brady v. Maryland by failing to disclose to the defense material, exculpatory information.”
In plain talk, the judge said the police and prosecutor both cheated to win.
Beverly Monroe and her growing legion of supporters have more than a little potential to make the GOP’s only fresh face look as bad as Hugh Finn’s widow made former player Jim Gilmore look in that matter of Finn’s right to die with dignity.
After the conference-call-eavesdropping scandal and Speaker Vance Wilkins’ libido run amok, this attorney general — with his own programs he’d like to tout — must be wondering, “Will I ever get out from under the fallout from mistakes that were made before my watch began?”
Jerry Kilgore, a trained advocate, must see that this Coleman/DNA business could make him appear to be just another hack willing to put loyalty to party line over knowing the truth.
Furthermore, persecuting a grandmother with a camera-friendly sweet
smile — who’s already pulled seven years on what was probably a bogus conviction
in the first place — is riding for a fall.
F.T. Rea is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.