See the addendum at the bottom. Spoiler Alert: It answers the question with finality. ~ m.g.
It’s been two decades since the State of Virginia executed Roger Coleman for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law, but he’s still the darling of the anti-death penalty faction because they’re convinced he was innocent.
Until a few years ago, Virginia had successfully fended off media attempts to pay for DNA testing that might establish once-and-for-all whether or not he had anything to do with sexually assaulting and killing Wanda Faye Thompson McCoy.
“DNA testing is without a doubt a very powerful tool, but it is a tool for the living,” said a spokesman for the state Attorney General after a group of newspapers pressed the former Virginia governor to allow the testing. “Roger Coleman was and is guilty of the rape and murder of Wanda McCoy. All the repeated histrionics by various lawyers won’t change that.”
Hours before he died in the electric chair, Coleman failed a polygraph exam, but some of his supporters point out that the timing and stakes involved might have rendered the test meaningless.
The verdict of 12 of Coleman’s peers had been appealed and argued all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In all, the case was reviewed 12 times in litigation. Overall, close to 20 state and federal judges looked at the evidence and criminal justice process.
In typical media oversimplification, the press pointed out the state’s “rush to judgment” despite the fact that it took 11 years for Coleman’s appeals to work their way through the system.
The evidence shows that the jury did not wildly jump to conclusions that could not be supported. Indeed, just a brief look at the facts in evidence strongly indicates that Coleman was guilty.
Bradley D. McCoy, 21, and his wife, Wanda Fay McCoy, 19, lived outside Grundy, Virginia in a rented house. They had no children. Wanda was not employed; her husband was a parts clerk for United Coal Company, working the second shift from 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. On March 10, 1981, at 2:15 p.m., McCoy went to work, leaving Wanda at home alone.
(Coleman’s wife was Wanda’s younger sister and the Colemans lived in the home of Coleman’s grandmother, which was a five-minute walk from the McCoy house.)
McCoy testified that about 9:00 p.m. he telephoned Wanda “to see if she was okay.”
At the end of his shift, McCoy arrived home about 11:15 p.m. Entering his home, he saw that the coffee table had been moved, there were “slight drips of blood on the floor,” and the light and the television were on. Going to the back bedroom, where a light was on, he found his wife lying on her back on the floor. Her hair was pulled over her face, she had a wound in her chest, and there was blood beside her head. Her arms were stretched behind her head and her legs were lying straight out and apart.
Dr. Thomas D. McDonald, the medical examiner, made a superficial examination of Wanda, confirmed that she was dead, but did not move her pending the arrival of a State Police special investigating unit. She had a large cut to her neck and two puncture wounds in her chest. Dr. McDonald determined that the cause of death was the “slashing wound to the throat.” The body was still warm, rigor mortis had not set in, and Dr. McDonald estimated that Wanda had died about 10:30 p.m., or within 30 minutes before or after that time.
At daybreak, police measured the depth of Slate Creek, located 75 to 100 yards from the McCoy house, at 10 to 12 inches. The creek depth is important because the clothes Coleman wore that night indicate he waded through that particular creek.
The pathologist who conducted the autopsy found two foreign hairs in the victim’s genital area. He submitted these samples of her pubic hairs, blood, swabs from her mouth, hands, vagina, and rectum, and her underwear to the state crime lab.
Based on his previous history as an ex-con sex offender who served 3 years for an attempted rape, suspicion quickly focused on Coleman.
Coleman was a coal miner. The statement he gave to police was exculpatory, purporting to account in detail for his time on the night of the killing. He said he left his home at 8:30 p.m., left a local convenience store at 9:05 p.m., went to work when he learned that his shift at the mine had been terminated, and arrived at 10:50 p.m. at a bathhouse in town where he took a shower and changed his clothes before returning home.
Coleman agreed to supply samples of his blood, head hairs, pubic hairs, and saliva. These were taken to the Bureau of Forensic Science.
Elmer Gist, Jr., a forensic serologist employed by the Commonwealth of Virginia Bureau of Forensic Science, testified that he made an analysis of the items delivered to him. He said the two apparently foreign hairs found in Wanda’s pubic area were, in fact, not those of the victim but were consistent with pubic hair samples taken from Coleman. Gist concluded that these two hairs came either from Coleman or, by a possible but unlikely coincidence, from some other person of the same race whose hair had the same color, diameter, general configuration, and microscopic characteristics.
Coleman was a secretor, one whose “blood type factor” is present “in semen, saliva or other body fluids,” but 80 percent of the population are secretors. Coleman had Type B blood, a rare type possessed by somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of the population. Wanda’s blood was type O, a type which as much as 40 percent to 45 percent of the population have; her husband’s was Type A.
From Gist’s examination of the vaginal specimen taken from the victim’s body he found that semen had been deposited in her vagina by a secretor with Type B blood. He also determined that a bloodstain found on Coleman’s blue jeans was made by Type O human blood. Gist found blood on one of Coleman’s knives but not in sufficient quantity to enable him to determine whether it was human or animal blood. According to Gist, Coleman’s blue jeans were wet from the bottom of the legs to a height of about 12 inches. They were dirty and had “blackish stains on the upper legs in particular.” Photographs of the victim depicted a very dark, fine substance on her hands.
There was a jailhouse snitch who testified, as well.
Roger L. Matney, a convicted felon, testified that when he had been incarcerated in the same cell block with Coleman in the county jail, Coleman had described for him the killing and rape. According to Matney, Coleman drew a diagram of the McCoy house and said he and another man were in the house and after the victim’s husband called her about 9:00 p.m., Coleman’s companion cut her and she began to scream.
Coleman told Matney the two men took the victim to the bedroom and both raped her. The knife “was supposed” to have been hidden under Black Watch Bridge. Coleman began to say something about a paper towel when the conversation ended. (Other evidence of the Commonwealth showed that a paper towel was found near the victim ’s body).
Elmer T. Miller, a forensic scientist, testifying for the defense, said that from his examination of swabs received from Dr. Oxley he determined that the very dark, fine substance found on the victim’s hands was soil and particles of plant material, not coal dust.
Shortly before 11:00 p.m. on March 18, 1982, the jury found Coleman guilty of capital murder.
Capital trials are bifurcated, or split into two phases: Guilt and penalty. In the penalty phase the jury that convicted the defendant hears evidence from both the prosecution and defense in support of their preferred punishment. The past acts and character of a defendant are always considered before a jury can hand up its sentencing recommendation.
One of the witnesses for the prosecution was the woman who Coleman tried to rape.
Brenda R., 36, testified as a witness for the Commonwealth during the penalty phase. She described an attempted rape committed by Coleman on April 7, 1977.
Coleman, whom she had never seen before, was admitted to the house when he asked for a drink of water. After some conversation, Coleman pulled a gun and forced her to tape her daughter’s hands and feet and place her in a child’s rocking chair. Coleman then walked Mrs. R. at gunpoint upstairs to the bedroom where he ordered her to undress. Seizing an opportunity to escape when Coleman went for his gun, Mrs. R. ran downstairs, picked up her daughter, and fled from the house and screamed for help. As neighbors came to the rescue, Coleman ran away. The entire episode lasted approximately ten minutes, according to Mrs. R. and throughout this time Coleman “never really raised his voice,” which she described as “[v]ery cold.” She recalled, “It was just like, do it or die.”
For that crime, he was sentenced to serve three years in the State penitentiary.
Coleman’s death penalty appeals in state court went nowhere, and his federal appeals were just as unsuccessful.
Under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, the Supreme Court put strict new limits on the ability of state inmates to present habeas corpus petitions in federal court.
Coleman’s case itself helped Rehnquist in his quest to speed the process. On a 6-3 vote in the case of Coleman vs. Thompson, the high court said that if a defense lawyer errs in a state court — in this instance, by filing a late appeal — the inmate may not get a further hearing in the federal courts.
Because of that ruling, federal judges were under no obligation to grant Coleman a hearing on the “newly revealed evidence.”
The so-called new evidence was a DNA test that put Coleman in a group of less than 0.2 percent population that could have committed the crime — based on sheer numbers that puts him in a large group. The defense claimed the test was misinterpreted.
However, a week before Coleman’s execution, U.S. District Judge Glen W. Williams said that the new evidence did not convince him that Coleman was not guilty.
Shortly before he was executed, Time magazine put him on its cover and the Washington Post argued that he would be executed because he was “too poor to hire a good lawyer.”
Was Coleman innocent? A dozen of his peers believed beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not. The justice system reviewed his conviction over and over and found that his arrest, trial, conviction, and sentence were within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with opposing the death penalty and wanting to change the law. The problem is relying on half-truths and mistaken assumptions to point out the unfairness of the system. Anti-capital punishment forces could do a lot better than Roger Coleman if they need a poster child.
Virginia eventually did acquiesce to testing Coleman’s DNA. It turned out that it matched the DNA of the person who sexually assaulted Wanda McCoy.