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What is most staggering is Smolowe’s assertion that there was no motive for the slaying. More than half the murders in this country are committed during the course of a rape or robbery. The motive for these “felony murders” is always the same — to prevent the witness from identifying the criminal. If Coleman had raped his wife’s sister, would he have any reason for wanting to keep her from testifying? Would he have had any reason for not wanting her to identify him? The disingenuousness of liberal reporters is sometimes beyond belief.
AS COLEMAN’S 1992 EXECUTION DATE drew near, DNA technology was improving rapidly. Behan arranged for further testing on the sperm sample — with disastrous results. Coleman’s DNA matched the sperm sample to a probability of 98 percent. Combined with the match of blood types — an entirely separate criterion — this made the match one in 1,200. In the entire small mining town, there was probably only one person with the murderer’s genetic profile — Coleman.
No matter, Behan had another approach — “somebody else did it.” At this point, Behan had been joined by Jim McCloskey, described by Time as an “independent investigator…renowned for tracking down lost or overlooked evidence that has often led to the freeing of convicted murderers.” Actually, McCloskey is a former Wall Street executive who took a theology degree at Princeton in 1983 and then founded Centurion Ministries, “a non-profit organization whose singular mission is to liberate from prison and vindicate individuals who are completely innocent of crimes for which they have been convicted and imprisoned.” (It has found 14 such cases since 1983.)
A few days after the murder, a neighbor of the McCoys had found a plastic bag stuffed with blood-soaked sheets, two cowboy shirts, and a pair of scissors. Stupidly, he threw the bag into the garbage rather than turning it over to the police. Convinced the evidence would exonerate Coleman, Behan and McCloskey hired a backhoe to excavate the entire town dump. They did find a small section of the sheet but it was unusable as evidence. Undaunted, Behan began publicly accusing another Grundy man of the murder, based on hearsay reports of “confessions” that everybody involved denied.
Despite these fumbling efforts, Behan still had the best weapon of all — access to the media. Arnold & Porter began a national campaign that eventually made Coleman what National Review called the “poster boy of the anti-death penalty crusade.” Coleman was reasonably good looking and had become well spoken in his ten years in prison. With his framed glasses and gentle manner, he looked and sounded like your average yuppie. He also intelligently framed his appeal as an anti-death penalty crusade, representing himself as a symbol of all those on death row.
The national media couldn’t get enough of it. A remote appearance on Phil Donahue brought an avalanche of publicity. Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder was buried in appeals to grant clemency. Coleman was soon on Nightline and the Time cover story ran the week before his scheduled execution. The morning of the date, Behan and McCloskey arranged a publicly broadcast lie-detector test. Coleman failed. Even then, the execution was delayed another 15 minutes by a last-minute appeal to the Supreme Court. When Coleman was finally sat in the electric chair on the evening of May 20, 1992, 14 satellite trucks stood outside the Greensville Correction Center broadcasting to the world. “An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight,” were his last words. “When my innocence is proven, I hope Americans will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.”
It didn’t end there. In 1997, John C. Tucker, a former criminal defense attorney, published May God Have Mercy, the usual in-depth exoneration. The Baltimore Sun called it “a gripping book [that] demonstrates all that is wrong with capital punishment” and the American Lawyer said it was “the most compelling description yet written of how a man — who was probably innocent — can be executed in America today.” In 2002, on the 10th anniversary of the execution, the Arts and Entertainment Network ran “American Justice: An Execution in Doubt,” yet another rehash of the case.
The sperm evidence and samples of Coleman’s DNA remained preserved at Forensic Science Associates, a California crime lab, and with improving DNA techniques, Centurion Ministries began campaigning for a yet another test. When the Virginia courts rejected the petition the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Washington Post, and Boston Globe all joined the suit. Finally, on January 5, Governor Warner issued a special order to reopen the case. Warner may have only been clearing his desk before leaving office, but in terms of the Alito hearings, the results could not have been more perfectly timed.
Had the test exonerated Coleman — which many people obviously believed would happen — anti-death penalty advocates would have been marching outside the Senate. As it was, they barely blinked. “There are many more like the Coleman case,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of the New York-based Innocence Project, with apparent unintended irony. “DNA has shown, whether it’s the death penalty or not, there are flaws with eyewitness testimony, false confessions and crime labs. We know many more people have been wrongfully convicted than anyone thought.” William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International, announced, “Despite the outcome of these tests, the antiquated practice of state-sanctioned executions should be abolished based on its appalling record of human error.”
NO ONE WANTS TO SEE an innocent man executed and such retesting should obviously be performed wherever possible. But it’s amazing how the press consistently refuses to print the other side of the story.
Since states resumed executing people in 1990, the murder rate in this country has dropped precipitously, from 9.8 per 100,000 to 5.6 per 100,000, back to the levels of 1965, when executions were discontinued. The drop has been concentrated precisely in those states that are actually performing executions. In the eleven states with no death penalty, murder rates have hardly changed at all. (Those states, mostly in New England and the Upper Midwest, all had lower rates of homicide to begin with.) In the handful of states that have death penalties but have not executed anyone, the rates about halfway in between. Unfortunately, as executions have again stalled in the last four years, the decline in the murder rate has ended.
The type of murder that has fallen is precisely the type that Coleman committed — murder in the course of another crime. The logic is simple. If you are raping or robbing someone — particularly someone who knows you by sight — you have a very strong incentive to kill him or her in order to eliminate the witness. You are already facing a jail sentence. If the punishment for murder is only more time in jail, there is not much disincentive against homicide — particularly when weighed against the possibility that you might get away with it altogether. But if the punishment for murder is qualitatively different — the death penalty — then you have reason to inhibit your impulse to kill the victim. That is how the death penalty prevents murders.
Liberals can never get this through their heads. They live in a fantasy world where there are no bad people and murders are only a mistake, an accident, or someone else’s fault. With Roger Keith Coleman, we never even got around to the “root causes” of the crime — he was a poor coal miner, America is an unjust society that condemns miners into low-paid, unsafe working conditions, etc. It’s the same with terrorism. There are no bad people in the world, only misunderstood Third World victims of globalization. Inevitably, it is not crime or terrorism but our response to it — eavesdropping, the invasion of Iraq, the death penalty — that comes under attack.
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