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DNA retest ordered 13 years after Virginia execution

An about-face in state where judges, officials had fought the request

WASHINGTON -- Virginia's governor, Mark R. Warner, has ordered DNA testing that could prove the guilt or innocence of a man executed in 1992, marking the first time a governor has asked for genetic testing of someone already put to death.

The analysis, which began last month, relates to the case of Roger Keith Coleman, a convicted killer whose proclamations of innocence -- including on the night of his execution -- sparked concern nationwide over whether the wrong man died in the electric chair.

Warner's decision marks a dramatic turnaround in Virginia, where officials and judges in the past have routinely refused to reexamine evidence in criminal cases after a defendant's conviction and have been steadfast in their denials of postexecution requests. Results of the Coleman test, which is being conducted by scientists in a Toronto laboratory, could be announced before Warner leaves office next week.

''This is an extraordinarily unique circumstance, where technology has advanced significantly and can be applied in the case of someone who consistently maintained his innocence until execution," Warner said yesterday in a statement. ''I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence."

If exonerated, Coleman would become the first executed person in the United States cleared through genetic testing.

In 2002, the Virginia Supreme Court refused a request from several newspapers and Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based group that investigates wrongful convictions, to test the DNA evidence in the case. The Boston Globe and The Washington Post were part of the suit.

''The right to test evidence in a criminal case has not been historically extended to the press and general public," the court ruled. ''The newspapers have no right . . . to obtain the biological material in question and subject it to retesting."

After repeated appeals from Centurion, Warner reversed the state's longstanding opposition and ordered tests early last month.

The evidence has been held in a freezer at a California DNA laboratory by Edward Blake, the forensic scientist who performed more primitive tests in 1990 that put Coleman within 2 percent of the population that could have produced the sample. Blake was barred from testing the evidence without permission from Virginia, but he did not return it for fear it would be destroyed.

Coleman, a coal miner from Grundy, a small mountain town in southwestern Virginia, was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1981 rape and stabbing of his sister-in-law, 19-year-old Wanda McCoy.

Brad McCoy, who was married to Wanda when she was slain, said he remains convinced Coleman killed her, and said he's been hurt by all the questions raised by others about Coleman's guilt.

''I really don't understand why it's being done," said McCoy, who has remarried and has two children. ''We keep talking about Roger Coleman as the victim. Wanda McCoy was the victim. I have no doubt in my mind it will prove him guilty. Where does it end?"

Virginia -- the first state to use DNA evidence in a criminal trial -- has now become the first to engage in widespread genetic testing in old cases in an effort to see whether new technology will uncover any wrongful convictions.

After a recent review of 31 old criminal cases resulted in the exonerations of two men who spent years in prison for rapes they did not commit, Warner last month ordered the wholesale review of thousands of other old cases from the 1970s and '80s, before the advent of DNA testing. In all, five men who served 91 years in prison have been exonerated in the state over the past several months.

The testing in Coleman's case marks only the second time nationwide that DNA tests have been performed after the death of a death row inmate. In 2000, tests ordered by a Georgia judge on evidence in the case of Ellis Wayne Felker, who was executed in 1996, were inconclusive. Genetic testing exonerated Florida inmate Frank Lee Smith several months after he died of natural causes while awaiting execution.

During Coleman's trial, authorities said there was compelling evidence of guilt, including hair on McCoy's body that was similar to Coleman's and the account of a jailhouse informant.

But Coleman maintained his innocence in a series of television and newspaper interviews that generated national and international attention. Coleman said he had an alibi and would not have had time to commit the killing. Defense lawyers also have gathered affidavits from people who said another man boasted of killing McCoy. Time magazine featured his case in a cover story titled: ''Must This Man Die?"

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