Tag Archive for Virginia

Gone, but not Forgotten

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.
 

Update


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.

The Lonely Hearts Family

Inez Brennan

The Internet has essentially killed off or at least put a serious damper on the national lonely hearts magazines where for decades single men and women have been able to connect. Most web-based matchmaking services have restrictions on who can join, and try to filter out scam artists and more dangerous predators.
 
In the years before the web, however, so-called lonely hearts were on their own in terms of protecting themselves against those who weren’t really interested in love.
 
The history of crime is filled with predators who used lonely hearts advertising to lure unsuspecting victims to their doom. Belle Gunness, Nannie Doss, George Joseph Smith, Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, Dr. Henry Colin Campbell and the truly creepy Harry F. Powers are just a few of the more prominent killers who found victims through the mail.
 
Compared to those killers, Inez Brennan, 43, was an amateur, but her case is just as compelling if not for her gruesome disposal method, but for her audacity and her use of her sons as accomplices.
 
Inez was known to have participated in the deaths just two men, although her chief accomplice, her son Robert, claimed at least one other murder at his mother’s insistence.
 
The Brennans probably would have gotten away with killing more people, but a couple of coincidental instances prompted an investigation by Delaware State Police and resulted in the family’s downfall.
 
The beginning of the end for the Brennan family came in late 1948 when a 60-year-old New Hampshire farmer named Hugo Schulz told his neighbors that he had “done the darndest thing” and was moving to Delaware to take a mail-order bride. He said her name was Inez Brennan and she had a farm off Horsepond Road near Dover.
 
n.b., this could be the only entry in the Register that features New Hampshire.
 
In April 1949 Schulz’s old neighbors were returning from a trip to Florida and decided to drop by their old friend. Arriving at the farm, they were greeted by a middle-aged, heavy-set woman that they assumed was now “Mrs. Schulz.” Instead, the woman said she had never heard of Hugo Schulz and that her name was Inez Brennan. When the couple pressed her, Inez suddenly recalled that Schulz had stopped by for a short visit and then headed to Virginia to marry someone else.
 
The couple didn’t know it, but Hugo Schulz was at the Horsepond Road farm. In fact, Hugo Schulz was part of the farm. Murdered in New Hampshire by the Brennan clan, Schulz’s body was brought back to Delaware in a 55-gallon drum, where it was buried in the farm pig pen.
 
The Brennan pig pen was the preferred burial spot for Inez Brennan’s suitors. Lying next to Hugo in the pig sty was 77-year-old Wade N. Wooldridge, a Virginia man who had arrived at the farm to meet his future wife around the same time that Hugo was bidding farewell to his friends.
 
Wade was last seen by his family in early October 1948 when his grandson dropped him off at a bus station where he was bound to meet a Mrs. Brennan who owned a farm in Dover. At the time Wade was carrying between $1,500 and $2,000 in cash.
 
“When we heard Mr. Wooldridge was on his way to the farm, mother said ‘nobody will miss him if somebody puts something through his head,’” 15-year-old Robert later told police.
 
Within 48 hours of Wade’s arrival at the farm, Robert followed his mother’s instructions and shot him to death. Robert didn’t just “put something through his head.” He shot the Virginian twice with 12-gauge shotgun.
 
“I finished off the old man,” Robert told the Brennan household. “I shot half his face off.”
 
Together with his brothers, 17-year-old George, and Raymond, 23, Robert dragged the body from the barn where the murder took place and buried Wade in the pig pen.
 
Shortly after that killing George lied about his age and joined the air force in an effort to get away from the doings at the Dover farm.
 
The Brennans then went through Wade’s belongings and kept most of them; the items were later found at the farm and identified by his relatives.
 
There was another person beside the Brennan clan who witnessed the murder of Wade Wooldridge. Dolly Dean, a 26-year-old war widow who moved in as a boarder/home health aide on October 2, 1948 after Inez became sick. Dolly was sitting in the kitchen when she heard a gunshot and screams coming from the barn. Robert came into the house and Inez told him to take a knife and finish the job. Instead, Robert went back to the barn and pumped another slug into his victim. The screaming stopped.
 
“I felt terrible,” she would tell police. “Bobby got down on his knees and said he was very sorry he upset me. We all stayed in the living room until about 9 p.m. Inez read a magazine.”
 
The family hinted that Dolly could share the same fate if she talked.
 
Raymond Brennan in custodyOn December 27, 1948, Inez, Robert, and Raymond headed up to New Hampshire to meet Hugo Schulz. It was possible that Inez didn’t plan on killing Schulz because she asked him for $1,000 “to pay a note on her farm.” Schulz declined and probably sealed his fate.
 
Schulz wasn’t the first man who Inez tried to rip off. In January 1948, a New Jersey farmer, Alonzo Hayes, loaned her $4,000 for “a note on the farm.” That was on top of an $800 loan another poultry farmer from Maryland gave her.
 
Hayes was sort-of fortunate: he at least knew where to have the papers sent when he sued to get his money back (his suit was unsuccessful). The other man simply received a letter from Inez saying, “Writing this on moving van. Going to new farm.” The note did not say where the new farm was.
 
Hugo was even unluckier.
 
The night after Hugo turned down Inez’s request for a loan, she put five sleeping pills in his evening meal. The pills had little or no effect. The next night, she upped the dose to 17 pills, but again Hugo simply woke up tired. Inez pulled out her big gun. She laced his soup with arsenic, which made him sick, but didn’t kill him.
 
Again, this wasn’t the first time Inez’s arsenic soup failed to work. Her second husband divorced her after he became ill from a meal she served and had the food analyzed. The tests revealed the presence of arsenic. He paid her $1,400 to be rid of her forever.
 
On January 10, 1949, when Hugo recovered from his poisoning, Inez once again turned to the family’s designated killer, Robert, who this time balked at shooting Hugo.
 
“My mother killed Schulz with a shotgun as he walked outside of the garage,” Robert confessed to police. “She told me over and over I ought to do it. I told her I couldn’t do anything like that so she did it.”
 
The killing crew put Hugo in a 55-gallon drum and loaded it into the back of his pickup truck. Before they left town, they sold off his 400 chickens and most of his farm implements to a local auctioneer.
 
They narrowly escaped detection when at the New Hampshire border they were stopped in Hugo’s truck by a state trooper who advised them that the truck had a sheriff’s lien on it. Inez followed the trooper to the local police station where she paid off the lien with $400 stolen from Hugo.
 
Back in Dover, they buried Hugo next to Wade.
 
In March 1949 Inez decided to sell the Dover farm. When Robert and Raymond heard of their mother’s plans, they exhumed the bodies of their victims, and in a day-long bonfire reduced the bodies to ashes. They placed the ashes (and Wade’s false teeth) in six 5-gallon paint cans and took them to the local dump.
 
The first break in the case came shortly after when Dolly went to local police and told them that there were “some strange doings” at the farm. Out of fear for her life, she didn’t say just what exactly those “doings” were.
 
Police filed away her alert because they had nothing to go on.
 
A couple of weeks later the Dover police received a call from Wade’s family asking authorities to check on his welfare. The family hadn’t heard from him since his grandson put him on the bus. Inez told police that Wade had been there, but then left.
 
In less than a week, Hugo’s neighbors stopped by the police station after leaving the Brennan spread and reported their concerns. The police decided to bring in the Brennans for questioning.
 
Robert broke first and confessed everything. Raymond confirmed that Inez “could get Robert to do anything. She’s very persuasive.” He then admitted that he helped move the bodies.
 
Inez held out the longest, but when confronted with the boys’ confessions, she fainted dead away. When she recovered, she admitted that the killings occurred, but denied telling Robert to kill. Finally Inez admitted her role.
 
“The way the boys said it, that’s how it was,” she sobbed. “Now get me out of here.”
 
Robert and Inez were tried for murder and accessory to murder, respectively by the Delaware Court of Oyer and Terminer. At the time, Delaware used old English rituals in its courts, and during the course of the trial, tipstaffs carrying tall spears with heads painted red on one side and escorted the pair into the courtroom and stood with the white tips toward the court to remind everyone that the defendants were innocent until proven guilty.
 
In September 1949, after a week-long trial, the tipstaffs reversed their speartips when the jury returned with guilty verdicts. Because Robert was 15 at the time of the offense and ineligible for the death penalty and Inez could not be punished more severely than her son, the court sentenced them both to life terms.
 
Raymond and George were tried as accessories after the fact and given short prison terms.
 
Robert was paroled in 1959, and in 1965 Inez was freed, as well. The State of New Hampshire had wanted to try the pair for Hugo’s killing, but because the case had weakened over time, dropped its case.
 
The Brennan family faded into oblivion shortly after.