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DNA Test Confirms Guilt of Man Executed in Virginia

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

DNA test results released today show that the state of Virginia did not execute an innocent man in 1992. Virginia Governor Mark Warner made the announcement after ordering tests in the case of Roger Keith Coleman. He was a convicted murderer who maintained his innocence until the end. Warner was the first governor in the nation to order DNA testing after an execution.

NPR's Anthony Brooks joins us from Richmond, and, Anthony, Roger Coleman was something of a cause celebre back in 1992. Tell us a bit about his story.

ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:

Yeah, indeed he was, Robert. Roger Keith Coleman was a coal miner from Grundy, Virginia, and he was convicted for the brutal rape and murder of his sister-in-law, Wanda McCoy, in 1981. Prosecutors argued that he had--that he was a convicted sex offender and that he had time and motive to carry out the murder, but the case became nationally known and internationally known and Coleman became something of the poster child of the anti-death penalty movement. He appeared on Time magazine shortly before he was executed with a title over his head: "Is This Innocent Man About to be Executed?" He proclaimed his innocence on "Nightline" two days before he was executed and he went to the electric chair proclaiming his innocence. And since then a network of lawyers and supporters have maintained his innocence and have petitioned the state of Virginia to do post-execution DNA testing, which wasn't available at the time. And for years the state of Virginia resisted and it went through the court system and all the way to the state Supreme Court and they never got the test until just now.

SIEGEL: And how was it that Governor Warner ordered the test this time?

BROOKS: Well, Governor Warner ordered the test because he just--he called this a unique circumstance where technology has advanced significantly and could provide a definitive result not available at the time of trial. It should also be pointed out that Warner's order came amidst an order to do a whole--hundreds of--to submit hundreds of criminal cases to post-conviction DNA testing. So this was consistent with that order. And Warner said to me yesterday, `You know, if we have access to the truth, you know, let's figure it out--let's find out what the truth is one way or the other.' So that's why he ordered the test.

SIEGEL: Now if this test had produced a posthumous exoneration of Coleman, it would be a tremendous claim to be made on behalf of the anti-capital punishment movement.

BROOKS: Indeed, and I really think--I mean, not to second-guess people's motives, but, I mean, I was just talking to some anti-death penalty people here in Richmond, and I think they were really stunned and hoping that this could finally give them that case, which they've never had. They've long suspected that an innocent person has been executed because they say the criminal justice system is flawed. Human error is possible. Therefore, it's possible that an innocent man could be executed.

SIEGEL: What do you hear from prosecutors and victims rights groups?

BROOKS: Well, what you hear from them is that enough already. The jury has spoken. The appellate process has run its course and why drag this on and on and on and second-guess, essentially, what the whole criminal justice system?

SIEGEL: Again, the DNA testing of the late Roger Keith Coleman has shown that he, indeed, was not the innocent victim of an institution...

BROOKS: That's right, absolutely certain, as close to certain as science can provide.

SIEGEL: Anthony Brooks in Richmond, thanks a lot. 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.