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January 12, 2006

DNA confirms guilt of executed Virginia inmate

As detailed in posts at TalkLeft and How Appealing, DNA tests have now confirmed the guilt of Roger Coleman, the defendant executed in Virginia who had proclaimed his innocence in a slaying and rape.  Though this interesting development is unlikely to alter the death penalty debate as much as if the DNA test came out the other way, I suspect this finding will be rightly used by death penalty supporters to highlight that death row defendants' claims of innocence must always be examined with skepticism.

UPDATE:  This post at NewsBusters notes how the news of Coleman's guilt has disappointed abolitionists, and recalls that "back in 1992 Roger Keith Coleman was Time magazine's cover boy against the death penalty.  Time ran the following over a photo of Coleman in chains: 'This Man Might Be Innocent, This Man Is Due To Die'."  The post concludes with this fitting query: "In 1992 Time went to bat for this murderer, the question is will they report how wrong they were in next week's print edition."

January 12, 2006 at 05:16 PM | Permalink


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I concur in your assessment. The confirmation that an executed person was in fact guilty is dog bites man -> not news. What makes the result newsworthy is the absolute certainty with which Coleman's advocates had asserted his innocence. Centurion Ministries' Web site has a statement accepting the result and admitting they were wrong on this case, yet right above it on their Coleman page is the following not-yet-edited statement from before the test:

"Centurion Ministries' four-year investigation of this 1981 Appalachian murder in Grundy, VA, produced scores of affidavits which plainly showed who the real killers were, and completely unraveled the State's weak case against Roger Coleman at trial. Nevertheless, the courts refused to grant a hearing and the Governor declined to intervene. Coleman was executed on May 20, 1992, still proclaiming his innocence even while in the electric chair."

This is in spite of the fact that, before the execution, DNA and blood type tests using the technology available at the time showed a match, and the probability of that match being random was only 1 in 500, on top of the evidence that originally proved his guilt at trial. See Coleman v. Thompson, 798 F.Supp. 1209, 1213-1214 (WD Va 1992), aff'd 966 F.2d 1441, stay denied, 504 U.S. 188.

Yet Centurion proceeded to misrepresent the strength of the evidence of guilt, accuse people of murder, and accuse officials of recklessly executing an innocent man, accusations now known to be false, proclaiming that the evidence "plainly showed" all this.

The take-home lesson here is to treat the shrill denunciations of the justice system and the representations of the facts of capital cases with a large dose of skepticism. Those of us who work in the field knew that already, but the contrast between the statements of Coleman's boosters and the truth in this widely publicized case may make that apparent to a wide segment of the population.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Jan 12, 2006 6:20:55 PM

"The take-home lesson here is to treat the shrill denunciations of the justice system and the representations of the facts of capital cases with a large dose of skepticism."

That skepticism remains justified. DNA testing has exonerated many convicted defendants. A sensible person would conclude there are others wrongly convicted who are not sufficiently lucky to have any DNA evidence available.

By the way, Centurion's assurances that Coleman was innocent are no more shrill than the glib assurances by prosecutors that everyone whom they accuse is guilty.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jan 13, 2006 8:30:46 AM

In my opinion, the conviction of one innocent man is a "large" number. But, by any statistical measure, the exonerations of convicts by DNA evidence has been astoundingly small (100 to 200 out of hundreds of thousands of convictions in which DNA evidence is collected). Particularly when you look at the number of prison inmates who are able to request examination of DNA evidence who don't (Bill Clinton knew what the DNA testing of Monica Lewinsky's dress would show), it's possible to get a better idea of the overall accuracy of our criminal-justice system, which is quite good.

Again, one wrongful conviction is a tragedy. But from a policy perspective, we have to be honest and admit that we are striking a balance between public safety and an occasional tragedy.

This problem is particularly pointed with capital punishment. Capital punishment advocates have to decide how many tragedies (and other costs, including money) justify the benefits (from their perspective) of capital punishment. Capital punishment opponents have to ask: are we ok with many more innocent people spending a life behind bars (because post-conviction review of life sentences is already woeful, and will become worse if capital punishment is abolished) in order to keep innocent (and guilty) people from being wrongfully executed? How do we make each of these assessments? I frankly don't know.


Posted by: Mark | Jan 13, 2006 11:23:18 AM

Douglas, I am glad you posted this information. I haven't spotted it yet on the Death Penalty Information Center website.

Posted by: ward | Jan 13, 2006 12:32:03 PM

Is the time served for inmates 85% of there time or 65%. Was informed of a new law in the state of Virginia.

Posted by: Pam | Mar 10, 2006 11:06:15 AM

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