In the hours before Roger Coleman’s 1992 execution, Jim McCloskey shared a pizza with Coleman outside Virginia’s death chamber and vowed he would keep fighting to exonerate him. Last week, DNA tests proved that Coleman was a rapist and killer. “He pulled the wool over my eyes,” said McCloskey, 63. “I’m going back and reflecting. Why was I blinded by this or that? We will learn from this.”
In the overall debate about the death penalty, Coleman’s DNA results may be a watershed moment. Now, death penalty foes will have to look for a new case on which to make their argument. Last year, as the U.S. recorded its 1,000th execution since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, 60 inmates were executed, compared with a record-high 98 in 1999. The number of people sentenced to death has also been dwindling, with 125 felons entering death row in 2004, compared to about 300 annually in the mid-1990s. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has banned executions of minors and mentally retarded offenders. For advocates of capital punishment, Coleman’s test results are proof that the system works, and some think it switches momentum to their argument. “The Coleman case proves exactly what we’ve been saying: that the safeguards are there,” said Stanley Rosenbluth of Virginians United Against Crime, a support group for victims that supports the death penalty.