Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Mr. Warner dithers

The Washington Post ran yet another editorial today calling for DNA testing for Roger Coleman, executed more than a decade ago by Virginia. The editorial begins:

Dithering on DNA

WHEN MARK R. WARNER became Virginia's governor three years ago, we greeted him with the friendly suggestion that he order new DNA testing in the case of Roger Keith Coleman. The commonwealth executed Mr. Coleman back in 1992, but both before and since the execution, his guilt has been heatedly disputed. An early form of DNA testing before his death suggested that he did commit the rape and murder for which he was condemned, but its methodology was controversial, and more modern testing might finally put the matter to rest. Ordering the testing should not be a tough call. New tests might -- by proving Mr. Coleman's guilt once and for all -- remove a cloud that has hung over Virginia's criminal justice system since the execution.

It continues:

This is getting ridiculous. It should take no great political courage for Mr. Warner to order the testing. It's hardly as though Mr. Coleman -- who is dead, after all -- will walk free if the testing exonerates him. The only questions the case still raises are of historical accuracy and retroactive accountability for the state's criminal justice system.

And it concludes:

Mr. Coleman, after all, insisted upon his innocence from the day of his arrest to his haunting last words: "An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight." If he was telling the truth -- however improbable that might seem -- respecting the "finality" of his conviction means never prosecuting the person who actually committed the murder. Every day that Mr. Warner dithers, he tacitly betrays an anxiety that the justice system over which he presides cannot withstand daylight.


To read the entire piece go here.

3 comments:

CJ said...

"An early form of DNA testing before his death suggested that he did commit the rape and murder for which he was condemned, but its methodology was controversial, and more modern testing might finally put the matter to rest."

I am both against the death penalty and think that it's ridiculous to prohibit additional testing if warranted. However, there has never been any "questionable DNA technology". The initial methodology used (RFLP) yielded as significant results as the current technology (STR) although it did require a larger and more 'intact' sample. An intermediate methodology (DQA1/Polymarker) only used by some state laboratories (of which I don't believe Virginia was one - it tended to be smaller states that were 'behind the curve' in terms of methods development) was also reliable although as a function of the loci (regions of DNA) examined yielded results that were considerably less discriminating than the other two procedures. To know whether additional testing is really warranted one would have to know what results had been obtained from the initial testing. However, being warranted and being allowed are two different things and his defense counsel should have the right to have additional testin performed regardless. However, given he was executed in '92 for a crime committed in '81, it is likely that the technology used was RFLP and unless the sample had been severely degraded or very limited (e.g., if perpetrator had been vasectomized) or for some other reason the lab didn't examine sufficient loci, the results should have been definitive. Unless (and certainly not unheard of) the information is totally off base and it was not any form of DNA analysis that was initially performed but merely blood-grouping or biochemical enzyme analyses. I don't have a clue (other than fear of law suit) why Warner would object especially since the prosecutor has apparently agreed but I don't know why his office should be involved at all -it seems to me the prosecutor could have had it tested at any point.

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