Tuesday, January 17, 2006

DNA Evidence Confirms Guilt of Executed Murderer

Roger Coleman's 19-year-old sister-in-law was raped and murdered in Virginia 25 years ago. Coleman was convicted of the crimes and was executed in 1992. Coleman claimed innocence even as he was strapped into the electric chair. In his final words, he said, "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight."

The execution did not end an effort by death penalty opponents to show Coleman's innocence. They finally prevailed upon the State of Virginia to conduct DNA tests, which were not available when Coleman was tried. Of course, after the execution, the DNA tests serve no legal purpose unless you have another suspect in the rape and murder. Still, Gov. Mark Warner (D) ordered the tests, becoming the first governor in the nation to permit post-execution DNA tests.

Last week, Warner announced that the DNA tests confirmed Coleman's guilt. (Hat tip to Cynical Nation.) Death penalty opponents seemed amazed that a convicted murderer would lie about his guilt. As one death penalty opponent said, "How can somebody, with such equanimity, such dignity, such quiet confidence, make those his final words even though he is guilty?"

This case reminds me of a Texas case a few years ago. As in Coleman's case, the case was tried before DNA testing was available, and physical evidence had been preserved. Later, the convicted murderer, then an inmate on death row whose appeals had been exhausted, proclaimed his innocence and requested DNA tests. When the DNA tests confirmed his guilt, the convict explained, "It was worth a try. I had nothing to lose."

When physical evidence has been preserved and the convicted individual claims innocence, it makes sense to conduct DNA tests to confirm or deny guilt, though, in some instances, the DNA tests will be inconclusive. After execution, performing DNA tests makes little sense unless the state has another serious suspect (that is, someone the state believes may have committed the crime). Fishing expeditions, especially ones encouraged by those with nothing to lose, are not worth the effort and expense.

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