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DNA Test Backs Up Verdict in 1992 Execution

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

New DNA testing has confirmed that the state of Virginia did not execute the wrong man back in 1992. Roger Keith Coleman went to the electric chair protesting his innocence. More than a decade later, Virginia's governor became the first in the nation to order DNA testing after an execution. NPR's Anthony Brooks reports on what the testing shows about a decades-old case.

ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:

In 1981, Roger Keith Coleman was convicted of the brutal rape and murder of his sister-in-law, Wanda McCoy, in Grundy, Virginia. The case made national and international headlines. The pope asked that Coleman's life be spared. He was featured on the cover of Time magazine with the caption This Man Might Be Innocent. And in 1992, just two days before he died in Virginia's electric chair, ABC's "Nightline" featured a calm and composed Coleman proclaiming his innocence.

(Soundbite of "Nightline" from 1992)

Mr. ROGER KEITH COLEMAN: I didn't commit the murder. I didn't commit the rape. I was not involved, and I don't know for certain who did. I am innocent. What else is there for me to say?

BROOKS: But yesterday, DNA analysis of a vaginal swab that had been carefully preserved showed conclusively that Roger Keith Coleman's semen was inside Wanda McCoy the night she was raped and murdered almost 25 years ago. A statement from Virginia Governor Mark Warner said that the results reaffirmed the verdict. Tom Scott welcomed the news. Scott is an attorney in Grundy who helped prosecute Coleman.

Mr. TOM SCOTT (Attorney): My initial reaction was euphoric. I felt like the weight of the whole world had been lifted from my shoulders.

BROOKS: Scott says that he and many people in Grundy who believed Coleman was guilty feel vindicated.

Mr. SCOTT: And I think to the extent that there may have been a minority of doubting Thomases in the community, that any concerns that they may have had probably have been laid to rest now.

BROOKS: But if Tom Scott was relieved, the test results were an unwelcome shock to Jim McCloskey.

Mr. JIM McCLOSKEY (Centurion Ministries): I always believed that Roger was completely innocent. I now know--I now know that I was wrong.

BROOKS: McCloskey heads Centurion Ministries, which tried for years to save Coleman and then spent years petitioning Virginia officials to test the evidence with modern DNA analysis. For years Virginia refused, but last month Governor Mark Warner ordered the test. In fact, in one of the final acts of his term, which ends tomorrow, Warner ordered post-conviction DNA analysis on hundreds of criminal cases in Virginia. Earlier this week, the pro-death-penalty Democrat said it was the right thing to do.

Governor MARK WARNER (Democrat, Virginia): I'm a strong supporter of our criminal justice system, but we should never be afraid to find the truth. Coupled with that strong enforcement of our laws has to be a willingness to find the truth at any cost.

BROOKS: If Coleman had been found innocent, it would have galvanized the anti-death-penalty movement, which has long argued that innocent people have been executed. In fact, that's never been proved. Jim McCloskey said he was certain that the Coleman case would finally expose the flaws of capital punishment and sway public attitudes against it. But ironically, DNA, which has exonerated scores of wrongfully convicted people, proved McCloskey wrong.

Mr. McCLOSKEY: This is a very--a bitter pill for me to swallow. However, the truth is the truth. We who seek the truth, especially in criminal justice matters, must live or die by the sword of DNA.

BROOKS: The grim question `Did Virginia execute an innocent man in 1992?' has hung over the state for almost 14 years. Yesterday, DNA finally answered no. Anthony Brooks, NPR News, Richmond.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Brooks has more than twenty five years of experience in public radio, working as a producer, editor, reporter, and most recently, as a fill-in host for NPR. For years, Brooks has worked as a Boston-based reporter for NPR, covering regional issues across New England, including politics, criminal justice, and urban affairs. He has also covered higher education for NPR, and during the 2000 presidential election he was one of NPR's lead political reporters, covering the campaign from the early primaries through the Supreme Court's Bush V. Gore ruling. His reports have been heard for many years on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.