The case of Virginia coal miner Roger Keith Coleman, who was executed in 1992 for the 1982 murder of his wife’s sister, is one of a handful of death-penalty cases in which DNA evidence could cast doubt on the guilt of men already executed, the Washington Post reports.
Since DNA fingerprinting revolutionized criminal forensics in the late 1980s with precise identifications, it has freed more than 130 convicts, 12 of whom have walked off death row. In other cases, prosecutors have blocked DNA testing before an execution and fought posthumous tests vigorously.
In the Coleman case, advocates have recently with a senior aide to Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, who could order the DNA tested. Last Friday, in the Texas case of Richard Wayne Jones, a judge granted a prosecutor’s motion to stop legal efforts to obtain evidence for testing.
“The most critical reason to test these cases is that you can find the person who really committed the crime,” said Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, which helps inmates seeking post-conviction DNA testing. “It seems to me the community would have a compelling interest in knowing the truth, and we can learn from the truth.”
Scheck cites the Florida case of Frank Lee Smith. Smith — black, poor and mentally ill — was convicted of the 1985 rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl. He died of cancer on death row in 2000, waiting for DNA testing that exonerated him 11 months later. The test identified a convicted rapist and murderer as the perpetrator.
Prosecutors often support post-conviction testing if the results could definitively resolve the issue of guilt or innocence. But many oppose what they see as baseless testing, partly out of concern for the victims’ relatives, who have long waited for closure. “There are circumstances where enough is enough after going through 15 years of appeals,” said Josh Marquis, an Oregon prosecutor who is co-chairman of the capital litigation committee of the National District Attorneys Association. “At some point there has to be finality. They have no disincentive for stopping. . . . In most of these cases, it’s the last-ditch effort, the Hail Mary pass.”
The spate of well-publicized wrongful convictions uncovered by DNA testing has taken its toll on the system. As Attorney General John Ashcroft encourages aggressive pursuit of the death penalty, jurors are showing increasing reluctance to mete it out. A 2001 federal study shows death sentences are down by half since 1994. Proof that an innocent man has been executed could be a tipping point in the debate. “There is no question” that the vindication of an executed man “could have a significant impact on the system,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, an anti-death-penalty education organization. “By putting a human face on a huge mistake, hesitation of the death penalty could turn into opposition — not because people morally perceive it as wrong but because they would see the system is flawed.”
In four cases of executed men examined by The Washington Post, anti-death-penalty advocacy groups, relatives of the executed, lawyers or the media have tried to have samples tested.