Virginian Nears Execution Despite Doubt About Guilt : Law: New evidence emerges in murder, but Supreme Court rulings have made appeals more difficult.


Only two facts about the Slate Creek murder remain undisputed.

On the night of March 10, 1981, a young housewife died violently in her tiny, one-bedroom home on a hillside above the fast-flowing creek.

And on May 20, 1992, her brother-in-law, who served as a pallbearer at her funeral, is scheduled to be electrocuted for the crime.

This Appalachian coal mining town was stunned by the wanton murder and soon focused its attention on a likely suspect. When 22-year-old Roger Keith Coleman was convicted and sentenced to die, nearly everyone here believed that the right man had been caught and would receive the punishment he deserved.

But in the decade since then, startling new evidence has emerged and doubt has replaced certainty. Some now believe that Coleman is about to die for a crime he did not commit.


Coleman’s troubling saga is the kind of story that may be repeated in the years ahead as the U.S. Supreme Court makes it increasingly difficult for Death Row inmates to reopen their cases to judicial review.

A series of recent rulings limit the rights of state inmates to file writs of habeas corpus before a federal judge.

A year ago, the high court used Coleman’s case to announce a particularly stiff new procedural rule: If a convict’s lawyer bungles--as Coleman’s did by filing a state appeal one day late--no further appeals may be heard in a federal court.

Unlike Robert Alton Harris, whose appeals were in federal courts in California for more than 10 years, Coleman has been barred from federal courts. And his claim is more fundamental: Unlike Harris, Coleman says he is innocent.

But on April 15, the Virginia Supreme Court rejected Coleman’s last appeal and reiterated its own tough rule: “Allegations of ‘newly discovered’ evidence” are not grounds for reopening a case in the state courts.

Kathleen Behan, a Washington attorney who has fought to save Coleman, says: “Roger is going to die because of a technicality.”

Details of Murder

Here is how it happened.

Wanda Fay McCoy was home alone that Tuesday night. Somewhat timid and only 19 years old, she spoke on the phone to her husband, Brad, about 9 p.m.

Brad’s shift ended at 11 p.m. and he arrived home a few minutes later. But something seemed amiss. The front porch light had been turned off and Wanda did not come to unlock the door.

He soon found out why. A lamp had been knocked to the floor in the living room, and spots of blood dotted the floor. In the bedroom, he found his wife lying on her back in a pool of blood. She had been raped and her throat nearly severed by a knife.

When the police arrived a few moments later, her body was still warm.

The police soon had a suspect. Wanda’s sister had married Coleman, who, as a high school senior, had been convicted of an attempted rape. Had he knocked on the door, Wanda would have let him in, Brad told police.

Coleman had been scheduled to work the night shift that evening, but his work detail had been canceled. About 10 p.m., he left the mine entrance and did not return home until after 11.

A semen sample found on the dead body came from someone with type “B” blood, which is shared by only 13% of the population--and by Roger Coleman. Brad McCoy had type “A” blood.

Two pubic hairs found on Wanda were said to be “consistent” with Coleman’s hairs. A speck of type “O” blood was found on the jeans that Coleman had turned over to police the next day. Wanda McCoy, along with 45% of the population, had type “O” blood.

The jeans were wet at the bottom. No one in the dozen homes below the McCoys’ saw Coleman or his pickup truck that night. Prosecutors theorized that the miner had parked his truck along a highway, waded through Slate Creek and walked the 300 yards uphill to the McCoy house. The wet jeans seemed to confirm the theory.

Coleman also turned over his three-inch pocketknife, which had a tiny dot of blood, too small to determine whether it came from a human or an animal. Police said it was the murder weapon.

Of course, not everything fit. If Coleman had waded the creek, why were there no wet footprints in the house? Wanda had died from a slashing knife wound, so why didn’t Coleman have more blood on his clothes?

And her fingernails were broken, investigators noted. They searched Coleman for scratches but found none. And curiously, they found dirt on her fingers and on her abdomen. They had no explanation for that.

Coleman denied any involvement in the crime. A high school friend, Philip Vandyke, testified that, as he was heading toward the mine entrance that night, he spotted Coleman leaving about 10:10 p.m. The two stopped alongside the road and chatted for 10 to 15 minutes, Vandyke said.

From there, Coleman drove eight miles down a winding road and through the small town to a trailer park, where he retrieved a music tape that he had left four days earlier. Coleman said it was about 10:40, but the couple who returned the tape told jurors they believed that he came to their door at 10:20.

There are two versions of what happened next. Coleman says that he drove back into town, where the miners have a bath facility. He removed his sooty clothes, showered and got his pants wet in the process, he said. He then returned home a few minutes after 11 p.m.

According to police and prosecutors, Coleman left the trailer park, drove four miles and in the next 30 minutes raped and killed Wanda McCoy.

During the trial, Coleman took the witness stand and fumbled to explain the blood specks on his jeans and knife. The two county prosecutors characterized the soft-spoken, unemotional young miner as a cold-blooded killer.

Neither of Coleman’s court-appointed attorneys had ever tried a major criminal case before. Mostly, they sat and listened.

After four days of testimony, a jury found Coleman guilty of rape and murder on March 18, 1982. The next day, they sentenced him to death.

On Death Row, Coleman maintained his innocence and eventually won a few converts.

Jim McCloskey, a former cleric who investigates unusual death penalty cases, received a letter from the Virginia inmate and eventually became convinced of Coleman’s innocence.

McCloskey is a powerful ally. As head of Centurion Ministries, he has succeeded in freeing 12 men and women from Death Row or life imprisonment in 12 years by unearthing evidence of their innocence. One of his most recent successes--and certainly his most publicized--was securing the release of Benny Powell and Clarence Chance for the 1973 killing of a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff, David Andrews.

Since 1988, he has repeatedly visited Grundy, interviewed and re-interviewed scores of residents and traveled the route that Coleman supposedly took the night of the murder.

The crime “just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “I can’t see that Roger had the motivation or the means to commit that crime.” An uncle, Roger Lee Coleman, has continued to fight for his nephew. Retracing the route, along narrow roads and through one-way streets, convinces him that his nephew did not have the time to commit the murder.

But once a conviction is upheld as final, higher courts are loath to re-weigh the facts of a case.

Break for Coleman

Coleman’s attorneys dutifully filed appeals challenging the procedural fairness of the trial, all of which were repeatedly rebuffed.

But in 1990, as the state moved to set a date for the execution, Coleman’s new lawyers finally got a break. They had published in the local weekly newspaper a letter from Coleman urging anyone who had information about the murder to write or call the Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter, which had taken over his case.

First came an anonymous call. A woman said that in 1987, another man in Grundy had tried to rape her and threatened to kill her, as he said he had done to “that girl on Slate Creek.”

Soon, two other women told similar stories and the lawyers persuaded them to come forward and supply court affidavits. They identified Donney Ramey.

When McCloskey investigated further, he received a surprise. In March, 1981, Ramey, then 20 years old, lived with his parents. Their house was directly behind the McCoy home, about 90 feet up the hill.

One woman said she had heard Ramey “brag” about the crime.

In March, a Roanoke, Va., television station broadcast an interview with Teresa Horn, the first woman to implicate Ramey. “He told me if I didn’t shut up, he would do me like he did to the woman on Slate Creek,” she said, recounting the 1987 incident. When pressed further, she continued: “He looked at the ground and said, ‘I did kill Wanda McCoy.’ ”

The day after that interview was taped, Teresa Horn was found dead of a drug overdose. She had suffered from severe back pain after an auto accident, and police said they saw no evidence of foul play.

However, two other women who have recently given lawyers statements implicating Ramey say they do not want their names divulged.

Suspect Denies Crime

Through his lawyer, Ramey has denied any involvement in the crime. He also submitted a sworn statement denying that he made any such statement to Horn and calling her a known liar.

Ramey’s parents also said that their son was home and in bed at 10 p.m. the night of the McCoy murder. Moreover, he has type “A” blood, which should eliminate him as a suspect, they say.

A second anonymous call from Grundy gave McCloskey another lead. A few days after the murder, a local man whose son was a friend of Donney Ramey and his brother, Michael, found a plastic garbage bag in the back of his pickup truck. Inside it he found a bloody sheet, a flashlight, a pair of scissors and two Van Heusen cowboy shirts.

The man’s wife, Nell Shortridge, who reported the bag and its contents to a county sheriff, said the sheriff never inquired further about the items and they were eventually thrown into a landfill.

“I’ve thought all along there were two killers. I don’t think one person could have subdued her,” McCloskey said in an interview.

He theorizes that Wanda walked outside that night to take the garbage to the trash can and was assaulted by two men. He also believes that the deep, slashing wound that killed her came from something larger than a three-inch pocketknife--such as pair of scissors. McCloskey says he suspects the Ramey brothers.

Police said that they have not taken blood samples from Ramey’s brother or from other friends of the Rameys who lived in the area.

The prosecutors and police say they are still certain the right man is headed for the electric chair.

“I haven’t heard anything yet that would cause me to think twice,” said Michael McGlothlin, who was the lead prosecutor in 1981. “The central fact is that the killer had ‘B'-type blood. And that’s Coleman.”

He also notes that Virginia courts have considered Coleman’s appeals and rejected them. “Now they want to retry the case in the press,” he said.

Getting the courts to reopen a case is not easy.

Under Virginia law, an inmate can file a writ of habeas corpus to challenge his conviction but only if he alleges that a procedural right was violated.

“A claim of newly discovered evidence pertaining only to the (inmate’s) guilt or innocence cannot form the basis for habeas relief,” Virginia Assistant Atty. Gen. Donald R. Curry said.

High Court Division

The U.S. Supreme Court appears closely divided on whether the same rule applies in the federal courts.

The conservatives, led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, have pushed to limit appeals by Death Row inmates. Moreover, they insist that federal judges consider only issues of law, not questions of fact.

For example, had the prosecutors wrongly concealed evidence that could have exonerated Coleman, that legal mistake could prompt a federal court to order a new trial. But Rehnquist says federal judges have no authority to reconsider the jury’s conclusion about the facts in the case.

The court’s waning liberal faction maintains that the Constitution demands “fundamental fairness” in criminal proceedings, including reopening cases in which new evidence calls the verdict into doubt.

In February, that split became even more apparent. Texas authorities were set to execute Leonel Herrera, who was convicted of killing a police officer. But his lawyers had obtained statements from two witnesses who said Leonel’s brother, Raul, had done the shooting.

Nonetheless, the U.S. Court of Appeals refused to halt the execution, ruling that such eleventh-hour evidence of “actual innocence” is not grounds for reopening a case.

In a series of late-night phone calls, four justices disagreed: Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor and David H. Souter. They voted to hear Herrera’s legal appeal in October, raising the stark question of whether the Constitution forbids the execution of a man who may be innocent.

Although it takes four justices to grant review of a case, it takes at least five to order a stay of execution. In Herrera’s case, five justices not only voted to deny his appeal, but also refused to halt his execution. He remained alive only because Texas judges ordered a halt hours after the four members of the Supreme Court agreed to rule on his appeal.

Coleman may not be so fortunate. In 1986, his lawyers bungled by filing an appeal one day late. Under Virginia law, lawyers must appeal within 30 days of the date when a judge stamps an order as final. The attorneys thought it was 30 days from the time the court clerk stamped the order as final. Because of that misunderstanding, they filed the 1986 appeal one day late.

As a result, the Virginia courts barred Coleman from further appeals. Last June, in the case of Coleman vs. Thompson, the Supreme Court on a 6-3 vote ruled that a “procedural default” in a state court bars a defendant from appealing in a federal court.

But the court opinion did not close the door entirely. A prisoner such as Coleman can get a federal judge to reopen his case if he can “demonstrate that failure to consider the claims will result in a fundamental miscarriage of justice,” O’Connor wrote.

Legal experts are not sure just what that means.

Two weeks ago, Coleman’s lawyers filed a 124-page brief in the federal courts in Virginia asking for a new trial and asserting that his execution would represent a “fundamental miscarriage of justice.”

But an exasperated Virginia attorney general says he has heard it all before. Coleman’s lawyers have set loose “an avalanche of contrived claims masquerading as ‘newly discovered evidence,’ ” state attorney Curry said in his legal response to the new appeal. The courts, he said, should “state firmly and unequivocally that ‘enough is enough.’ ”