Roger Coleman

Buchanan County, Virginia
Date of Crime: March 10, 1981
Executed May 20, 1992

Roger Coleman was convicted of the 1981 rape and murder of his sister-in-law, Wanda McCoy. He was sentenced to death and executed on May 20, 1992. Before this crime, Coleman was accused of attempted rape in April 1977. He was convicted because the victim identified him as the perpetrator despite his having a solid alibi provided by his high school principal. In Jan. 1981, Coleman was suspected of masturbating in front of two librarians at the public library, but maintained his innocence. Charges against him were initially brought in connection with his later murder charge, but apparently were only brought to prejudice the public since they were later dropped.

No direct evidence linked Coleman to the murder, but the prosecution theorized at trial was that the victim knew the perpetrator because there were no signs of forced entry to her house. A report later surfaced that there was a mark near the lock on the front door that was possibly a pry mark. In addition, the victim's hands, her sleeves, and her upper thighs were blackened with dirt. This evidence suggests she was attacked and dragged outside before she and her assailant went inside.

Coleman had an alibi witness, whose testimony and timecard made it almost impossible for Coleman to have had time to commit the murder, but a prosecution witness with a changing story, made it seem that Coleman had an additional half-hour to commit the rape and murder.

An investigation by Jim McCloskey and attorney Kitty Behan implicated McCoy's closest neighbor as the real killer and undermined the state's weak case against Coleman. As his execution date approached, Coleman received enormous press attention, including a cover story in Time Magazine. This press attention put pressure on Gov. Wilder's office to postpone the execution until the new evidence could be heard. Rather than postpone the execution, Wilder's office scheduled a dubious polygraph test for Coleman on the morning of his execution. No defense personnel or polygraphist was allowed to witness it. Within hours, it was announced that Coleman had failed and he was soon executed. Results of the test were never released because Coleman was dead and the “case was closed.” A 1997 book by John Tucker entitled May God Have Mercy tells Coleman's story.

In 2001, Centurion Ministries and some news organizations petitioned the judiciary to permit post-execution DNA tests. However, none of the victim's semen stained clothes had been preserved, undermining confidence in the chain of custody of the semen evidence. The state (or commonwealth) claimed to have preserved a tiny sample of the assailant's semen, but it also had a sample of Coleman's semen, as indicated in Tucker's book. Coleman, himself, indicated apprehension at giving the state a semen sample, and rightly so. Once the state had custody of Coleman's semen it could take a small swab of it and claim the swab was a sample of the assailant's semen.

In retrospect Coleman should have given blood, a mouth swab, or some other form of DNA. It is not clear why Coleman had to give the state a semen sample since the state had no intention of performing DNA tests and would actively oppose them for years. Apparently, such a submission was prompted by Coleman's defenders who were trying to force the state to perform such tests. Secondly, if Coleman's semen, rather than another form of his DNA, was required in early DNA testing, it could have been given to his attorney and held in confidence. Then if the state agreed to DNA testing, or a judge ordered it, Coleman's semen could have been given to an independent testing lab without it passing into the state's hands.

Given the state's record of often extreme hostility on the Coleman case, there is little basis to “trust” that the state would honestly submit evidence that could potentially prove it executed an innocent man. In 2006, DNA tests were eventually ordered which “proved” Coleman guilty. No one doubts the semen sample allegedly taken from the victim matched Coleman's DNA. However, there exists reasonable doubt that the sample ever came from the victim. In its eagerness to obtain DNA tests, Coleman's defender, Centurion Ministries, promised to accept the results of the tests. Out of apparent pride in keeping its promise, it stated after the dubious testing that it knows that Coleman is guilty. Whatever Coleman's actual guilt, the state wrongly convicted him and executed him based on the evidence then available. Its evidence that Coleman might not have had an alibi for the crime is hardly proof of anything. The state might have reliably proved Coleman's guilt, posthumously, by preserving the victim's semen stained clothing. It chose not to, leaving its hypothesis of Coleman's guilt an unproven assertion.  [6/08]


Reference:  Miami Herald

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Virginia Cases, Defendants Executed After 1976