DNA Testing of Roger Keith Coleman

I'm truly fascinated by this news that Virginia Governor Mark Warner has ordered DNA testing of Roger Keith Coleman, who was executed in 1992.

In law school, I worked on an innocence case, and our client died in prison while the DNA was at the lab. Despite our attempts, the court ultimately decided that we had lost all standing to go forward with the DNA testing.

I hope that this will open up a new avenue for that family to get the DNA testing that they so desperately wanted.

As for Coleman, I don't know much about the case other than what I've seen in the news in the past two days.

And, I feel torn because I don't really know what to hope for.

If the DNA testing confirms that he was guilty, I'm still not happy that someone was executed - whether or not he was guilty. So, it doesn't do much for me.

But, if the DNA testing exonerates him, obviously that's bad because it means an innocent man was executed. And it means that the actual rapist and murderer was not punished. But, on the other hand, it will bring a lot of attention to the flaws of capital punishment.

I know you might be wondering whether or not capital punishment and innocence really requires more attention. Especially if you're a liberal like me, reading liberal public defender blogs all day. You might not realize that there are people out there who have no idea that the whole issue exists.

I have a very good friend from college who is an extremely conservative Republican. When I was in law school, I told her about the innocence cases I was working on. And she absolutely positively did not believe that an innocent person could be convicted, much less given the death penalty. Even then, when I told her that nearly one hundred people had been exonerated by DNA testing, she responded, "Right, but they were finally exonerated. The system worked."

Except that it's generally not the "system" that is working with the convicted. It's charitable organizations and academic institutions.

We've talked about my cases a thousand times since then, but she's still of the same basic mind set. So, I guess that while I can't hope that an innocent man was executed, I think I can hope that if that's what happened, then some good will come out of it if ultimately brings some much needed attention to the flaws in the system.


  1. I'm fascinated by this development as well. I remember reading the original Time article on Coleman back when I was in high school. It really affected me.

    You are so right about the ridiculous argument that the cases of the exonerated demonstrate that the "system works." That is such BS.

    It is often those who are arguing for a shorter appeals process and not postponing or overturning death sentences because of "technicalities" who are the same people who champion the system having worked in the cases of death row exonerees. What they fail to acknowledge is that almost all of those people would have been executed long before they were exonerated if the shorter appeals process they advocate had been in place. It is often the extensive procedural safeguards--not actual innocence claims--that keep people alive long enough to eventually prove their innocence.

  2. NC had several big exonerations over the past few years. Daryl Hunt was exonerated after 18 years in jail. Even if it were the "system" that worked to exonerate him, it took 18 freakin years, and an innocent man was in jail that whole time, away from his family.

  3. Well, we all learn in law school that "beyond a reasonable doubt" does not mean "beyond all possibility of doubt." In your run of the mill case, I think that's all well and good because we would not be able to have a functioning criminal justice system if we raised the burden of proof to a mathematical certainty. Just by our very definition of the reasonable doubt standard, we accept the possibility that some innocent people will be convicted -- although in theory we try to weight the system to avoid that possibility to the extent we can.

    I'm of the school of thought that death is different. Execution is far too horrifying and final a punishment to inflict on someone who is merely convicted "beyond a reasonable doubt." I hope that Coleman is exonerated-- because I think proving that someone innocent was wrongfully executed will go a long way towards changing people's minds on this issue.

  4. I seriously doubt that these individuals are "innocent." And the death penalty certainly helps to rid the country of people who are dangerous to society. The only problem is that more people are not executed. It would free up resources to place more criminals in prison.

    Too much emphasis is placed on DNA evidence. It is just one peice of the puzzle, but I think CSI has turned the public into pseudo-science junkies. When I was on jury duty people thought that CSI was real. So, their faith in the power of DNA or electronic eavesdropping was completely out of whack with reality.

  5. As a prosecutor, I used to worry that the jurors had come to expect definitive forensic evidence in every single case. I don't know if my worry was founded or not though.

  6. E-Foolish's comment -- that s/he "seriously doubts that these people are innocent" -- merely confirms the problems we face with the death penalty: The public has yet to be educated, much less convinced, that mistakes happen, are happening.

    Fortunately, this is starting to turn around, with the Ruben Cantu case out of Texas, the Willingham case out of Texas, the Griffin case out of Missouri and, now, the Coleman case out of Virginia. One executed innocent person? An accident. Two executed innocent people? An embarrassing coincidence. Three or even four executed innocent people? Suddenly we are talking about a pattern.

    Having said this, I do not know, much less dare predict, how the Coleman DNA testing is going to come out. But the Cantu, Willingham and Griffin cases (none of which relied at all on DNA) are strong, strong, strong innocence cases, E-Foolish's comments notwithstanding. And that theme -- innnocence and the execution of innocent people -- is going to dominate the death penalty debate this year.

  7. E-Foolish's name is fitting.

    "The only problem is that more people are not executed. It would free up resources to place more criminals in prison."

    What complete idiocy.

    And, as for your friend's comment, Blonde, re: the system "working"--it's kind of hard to agree with that in the situations where an innocent person is killed, regardless of how rare one might think that that occurrence is.

  8. How many innocent people are killed?

    One is too many right?

    I don't mean to sound callous, but people die all the time. To claim that our justice system has serious problems because a single person is executed for a crime they didn't commit is over the top.

    Think of it this way... 11 men die in a mine in West Virginia. They certainly did not deserve to die. However, people want cheap electricity to power their computers for blogging. So, all of this mindless chatter has contributed to killing people in a mine in West Virginia. Men who by their circumstances could not afford to go to law school and fill their empty moments by blogging. Yet, mining is and will remain a dangerous job.

    Vigorously defending people who were convicted of a capital offense is not as noble as you would like it to be. Our system is flawed, but all of this hoopla over innocence projects is a bit over blown. More innocent lives could be saved by simply reducing the amount of energy we consume.

  9. Where the hell is a puking emoticon when you really need one?

    Man, E-foolish, you sure have a way about you.

  10. The fatal flaw in your logic, E-foolish, is that the miners in your example willingly assumed the risk when they accepted their position. They had other choices, although perhaps not as many as some. And, their dependents likely have some form of compensatioin available both through insurance and other means, including possible litigation.

    The poor schmuck who happened to have the bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and is now sitting in the electric chair, wrongly accused and convicted, had no choice in matter.

    Let's hope that you're never in the wrong place at the wrong time. Me thinks that your position would change in a heart beat if you were wrongly accused and faced with death by injection.

  11. Data:
    Number of executions in 2004 = 59

    Number of work related fatalities in 2004 = 5,703

    Number of homicides in 2004 = 16,137

    I don't think there needs to be more protection for criminals...

    Also, I'll stop posting on this subject because it is obvious that I am in the minority in my beliefs.

  12. Funny, the exonerated were, by definition, not "criminals". So, no need to make more laws to protect criminals. Need more laws to protect someone like E-Foolish when he is standing in line at the deli ordering a turkey sandwich, approached by detectives and uniformed officers, is taken downtown, stands in a lineup and is misidentified, is tried by a jury of his 'peers' (Haha!), convicted, sentenced to death, and has a lethal mixture of chemicals pumped into his veins by a guy on the other side of a cement wall. That's what those laws are there to protect.

    The law is not made for the best of us, but for the least of us. For E-Foolish and everyone else who isn't a true believer - but for the grace of God go each and every one of us.

  13. Gov. Warner's decision to allow re-testing of the DNA sets a bad precedent, and his decision appears to be motivated by political reasons. The evidence against Coleman is well documented, including, but not limited to, previous DNA analysis (which put him in the 2% of the entire population that could have left the specimen in a town of a few thousand), tests done on hair left at the scene, and a final polygraph test, so there is no need to go into it in detail here, you can google it.

    But, the fact is that Warner made the decision on the eve of his departure from the Governor's mansion when he's had nearly four years to make it. He makes it now to endear himself to the left as he prepares himself for a presidential run as a democrat whose record is too far right to get the nomination. If the testing appears to show Coleman's innocence (there are questions as to whether there is enough left of the evidence after previous testing and whether the sample was adequately preserved both in the several years of storage in California and the tranfer to the testing facility), he won't have to deal with the aftermath of the attack on the Virginia justice system, but will garner the accolades of the anti-death penalty advocates in his run. If the testing confirms the previous tests and evidence, then his campaign for Pres. will give him kudos for "making sure." Coleman was given chances up until his death to prove his innocence that went above and beyond the law in state and federal court, and was unable to do so. And we're still debating it 13 years later?

    If this happens in every case, where does it end, and who bears the cost? I believe I read that the testing was taking place in Canada?! Come on! Why did Warner agree to have the testing done in Canada instead of at the Virginia State Forensics Lab? Smells funny to me....

    In sum, I agree that innocent people shouldn't be put to death or put in jail, but this is the wrong case to be hanging your hat on.

  14. Well, at least we can all sleep well knowing that no one has ever been convicted because a prosecutor, an investigator, detective, patrol cop, or simply an asshole neighbor with a grudge lied.

    Yep, at least we don't need to fret about that.

  15. I've thoroughly enjoyed this discussion. Look at what you started, Blonde Justice!

    I confess I'm really interested in what the test results will show.

  16. Guilty.


  17. 'Well, at least we can all sleep well knowing that no one has ever been convicted because a prosecutor, an investigator, detective, patrol cop, or simply an asshole neighbor with a grudge lied.

    Yep, at least we don't need to fret about that'

    We can also sleep well knowing that one seriously sick sociopath is where he belongs...dead and buried, and some lying attorney didn't manage to convince the world to free him to murder again.

    Yep, at least we don't need to fret about that.