He Did It
By EUGENE H. METHVIN
January 28, 2006; Page A9
On May 20, 1992, the state of Virginia executed Roger Coleman, defying a global outcry that included Pope John Paul II, Time and Newsweek. A circus of 50 cameras and 14 satellite trucks crawling with newscasters from as far away as Japan crowded around the prison to broadcast Coleman’s last words: “An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight,” the 33-year-old declared. “When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.”
An international cause celebre in its day, Coleman’s case was just recently in the news again — though not on the front pages. Why that is so I will leave the reader to guess. But the case itself should not be forgotten.
Roger Keith Coleman’s run-ins with the law began early. When he was 13, local cops in the coal-mining town of Grundy, Va., caught him making obscene phone calls; classmates nicknamed him “Stud” partly because he hoarded pornographic literature. On April 7, 1977, a month before his high-school graduation, he attempted to rape elementary school teacher Brenda Ratliff at gunpoint. She struggled, scratched his throat and wriggled away, screaming for neighbors, who came running. Coleman fled but was arrested later that day with Ms. Ratliff’s scratch marks visible on his throat. He got a three-year prison sentence, but was out in 18 months. Next year he was arrested after exposing himself to librarians Pat Hatfield and Jean Gilbert.
While Coleman’s case awaited prosecution, Wanda McCoy, 19, was discovered in her home, nearly decapitated and lying half-naked in a pool of blood. Coleman, who lived nearby, provided an alibi which fell apart upon investigation. The forensic evidence was also damning. Pubic hairs on McCoy’s body matched Coleman’s, and sperm matched his rare blood type. Jurors found him guilty and, after hearing Brenda Ratliff describe his attempt to rape her, they recommended the death penalty.
The corporate law firm of Arnold & Porter in Washington, D.C., volunteered to handle his death penalty appeals. Kitty Behan, an associate with previous experience in the ACLU’s Washington office, took over.
Polls showed journalists opposed the death penalty by a three-to-one majority, so Ms. Behan launched a publicity blitz. She became Coleman’s booking agent and generated interviews for him on Larry King Live, ABC’s Nightline, twice on NBC’s Today and CBS’s Good Morning America. “Every minute of my time that night has been accounted for,” Coleman lied to Bryant Gumbel on Today. Phil Donohue flashed Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder’s phone number on the screen urging viewers to petition him for clemency.
Time put Coleman on its cover, proclaiming: “This Man Might Be INNOCENT. This Man Is Due to DIE. The courts have refused to hear the evidence that could save him.” Neither Time nor Newsweek mentioned that attorney Behan had had the sperm found in McCoy’s body tested using the imprecise DNA technology of 1992. Her own expert found the rapist-killer had a combination of blood type and DNA traits so rare probably only a single male among the 476 counted in Grundy between the ages of 17 and 64 would have it. Coleman did. “Based on the jury’s verdict, you’ve got your man,” Ms. Behan’s expert told police.
By the execution date, Gov. Wilder got 5,226 letters urging clemency and 292 for execution. But he also had an affidavit from a witness who said Coleman showed off a large knife a few days before the murder, and afterward asked him not to tell investigators. Thinking Wanda McCoy had flirted with him and “wanted it,” he said that he went to her house seeking sex and killed her when “things got out of control.”
Gov. Wilder gave Coleman one last chance: Take the polygraph test he’d always refused. He did — and flunked. “Too much stress,” Ms. Behan said. “We did not expect him to pass.” That night the Supreme Court refused to intervene. It was Coleman’s 18th round in the courts. He was executed at 10:59 p.m.
In 2001, the Washington Post, Boston Globe and other newspapers joined with the anti-death-penalty Centurion Ministries and sued Virginia, demanding a new test of sperm found in the victim’s body, using DNA technology that did not exist in 1992. Activists were certain they would have the first proof that an innocent person had been put to death since the Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976. “Few executions in modern times,” the Washington Post proclaimed, “have proceeded in the face of stronger evidence of innocence than Mr. Coleman’s.”
Earlier this month, Virginia’s departing Gov. Mark Warner gave them what they demanded. But the new DNA test left no room for doubt: Coleman was guilty. The major broadcast and print media barely mentioned the news.
So Roger Coleman takes his place in the line of criminals whose protestations of innocence have long gulled the credulous and sparked global protests against the U.S. criminal justice system. The list includes celebrity cop-killers such as Mumia Abu-Jamal; and then there are the politicals, such as accused Soviet spies Alger Hiss, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and Harry Dexter White, all of whom died proclaiming innocence, only to have their guilt confirmed by the 1995 release of decoded Stalin era messages known as the Venona papers. Earlier there were the sainted Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian anarchists whom Massachusetts executed in 1927 for robbing and murdering a factory paymaster and his bodyguard.
At the time, worldwide protests mobilized such famous intellectuals as Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, John Dos Passos and Felix Frankfurter. There were anti-American riots in London, Paris and Germany. Two years ago, a 1929 letter surfaced in which Upton Sinclair, who had written a book about the Sacco and Vanzetti case, revealed that the defense lawyer admitted his clients were guilty and that he’d fabricated alibi defenses at their trial.
Last week, Michael Paranzino, president of a group called “Throw Away the Key,” provided a proper admonition for journalists (and concerned citizens) interested in objectivity in cases like Coleman’s: “Stop the presses — it turns out that rapists and killers are also liars.”
Mr. Methvin, a writer in Washington, served on the President’s Commission on Organized Crime from 1983 to 1986.