Monday, April 12, 2010

Roger Coleman: A Precautionary Tale

Anonymous left a comment on my post Good Morning, Hank Skinner. I want to encourage such behavior, commenting on my posts, so I'll heap praise upon Anonymous for his insightful comment and discuss it herein.

Anonymous is clearly a very bright person, making two good points in the comment. The first has to do with the nature of Hank Skinner's civil rights claim.  I'll pass on that for now. The second point is reproduced below.

Reminds me alot of the Coleman case. (Remember he embarrassed the Centurion Ministries with his claims of innocence by DNA testing, that posthumously ended up being untrue.) 

This is simply more evidence of Anonymous's brilliance. I do indeed remember how Roger Coleman embarrassed Centurion Ministries. I thought hard about the Coleman case before declaring Hank Skinner to be FACTUALLY EXONERATED!, using all caps and an exclamation mark. Of the pieces I've posted on this blog, I am most proud of that one.

The idea for The Skeptical Juror series of books stemmed from my initial attempt to talk to America's jury pool in a single book detailing ten trials. The Trial of Roger Coleman was the first trial discussed in that never-finished book. One thing I learned from the Roger Coleman case was that you can't "detail" ten cases in one book. I decided instead to detail ten cases in ten books. The first of those, The Trial of Byron Case, is now available on Amazon.  The next in the series, The Trial of Cory Maye, will come closer to reality when I stop typing here and begin typing once again on that book. [Note to self: You are too easily distracted.]

To understand what Anonymous and I are discussing, you need an overview of the Roger Coleman Case. Here it is.  Roger Coleman was convicted by the State of Virginia and sentenced to death (via the electric chair) for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. He proclaimed his innocence, pleaded for all the DNA evidence to be tested (though preliminary DNA testing pointed to his guilt), and developed a group of die-hard supporters who claimed Virginia would be executing an innocent man. It does indeed sound familiar.

Leading the charge was James McClosky of Centurion Ministeries, a faith-based (and darn effective) innocence project. Time Magazine put Roger Coleman on the cover of its May 18, 1992 issue. Governor Douglas Wilder publicly maintained his confidence in Coleman's guilt, but privately fretted over the implications (political and otherwise, I presume) of executing an innocent man. The execution went forward, and Centurion Ministries (along with four newspapers) sought to have the DNA tested, though Coleman had already been fried. The courts turned them down, but Governor Wilder's successor, Mark Warner, ordered the DNA be tested.

The DNA test results proved conclusively that Roger Coleman viciously raped and murdered his sister-in-law.

As part of my research on the Coleman case, I watched a video of James McClosky taking the telephone call in which he was to learn of the final DNA results. I watched him assimilate the information as it came in. I watched him hang up the phone, then explain to the others into the room, and to everyone watching on video (then and forever into the future) that Roger was guilty and that he (James McClosky) had been deceived. I remember him (possibly incorrectly I realize) slowly shaking his head, and perhaps saying  quietly "I can't believe it," though obviously he did. I remember him accepting he was wrong.

I found myself being tremendously impressed by James McClosky. He had poured his heart and soul into the case. He had fought valiantly for years to defend a man he did not realize was unworthy of his trust.  When the definitive results came in, he accepted that he was wrong, in person, in real time, in front of the camera. He had been used and his reputation had been tarnished, and he took it like a man.

To this day, I hold Jim McClosky in high regard. I think, though, he allowed himself to be unduly biased by Roger Coleman's born-again behavior while in prison. I think also he was encouraged by his own ability to poke holes in Virginia's lame-brain story of what happened on the night of the murder, and by the less-than-stellar behavior of the prosecution during trial. None of this, however, was evidence of Coleman's innocence. 

McClosky did build a timeline which he claimed proved Coleman to be innocent, or very nearly proved so. I built my own timeline, which told me a different story. I think McClosky's bias got in the way of building a cold-hearted, objective timeline.

Sooooooo ....

Before I declared Hank Skinner to be FACTUALLY EXONERATED!, you can bet your bottom bippy I thought about the Roger Coleman case. No one wants to be proven wrong, and no one wants to be made the fool. Certainly I was opening myself up to a Jim McClosky type situation, and if it ever comes to that, I hope I will accept my error to a standard set by James McClosky. And for what it's worth,  my situation might seem even more tenuous given that I don't accept Hank's too-intoxicated-to-murder defense as compelling. (I leave open the possibility that Hank consumed at least some of the alcohol and/or codeine after the murder.) 

There are a couple bits of evidence that I believe prove someone else was in the house that night. The most obvious of these is the bloody boot print, size 12. Hank's shoe size is 9 and a half. Elwin was wearing no shoes. No boots matching the print were anywhere to be found.

The second most obvious to me is the hand print found on the plastic bag containing the bloody knife and a bloody towel. The hand print did not belong to Hank Skinner. 

The piece of evidence that caused me to declare Hank Skinner to be factually exonerated (and not simply factually innocent) was the hair clutched in Twila's hand. Before the post-conviction testing of that hair, DA  John Mann declared it to have come from the head of the killer. After the testing, Mann suppressed  the results and lied about them. Only after he left office, only after the execrable Rick Roach took over, did the the test results become public. Those results showed that the hair clutched in Twila Busby's dead hand came from someone other than Hank Skinner or Twila Busby herself.

What might the DNA test results show us? The rape kit might prove the presence of seminal fluids. If such fluids belonged to Hank Skinner, defenders would say "So what?"  If they belonged to someone other than Hank Skinner, prosecutors would say "It only proves motive."  I don't think the rape kit would be compelling.

Tests on the bloody knife might show the blood came from Hank Skinner. That would pretty much be it for Hank. On the other hand, tests might show the blood came from someone other than Hank. That would be pretty much it for Texas. Testing of the blood on the knife could be conclusive.

Finally, testing of the broken fingernails might reveal the presence of Hank's blood or skin. If so, it would be curtains for Hank. I don't believe that is a likely scenario, however, since Hank (reportedly) had no scratches on him at the time of his arrest.  If, on the other hand, the tests showed the presence of another person's blood or skin, then once again it would be all over for Texas. I don't think that even Texas would have the unmitigated gall to execute someone under those conditions.

Soooooooo ...

After considering the Roger Coleman case, and considering the Hank Skinner case, I decided to be the first (and so far the only) person to declare Hank Skinner FACTUALLY EXONERATED!  I did so because of the post-conviction DNA testing on that hair clutched in Twila's hand.  Why conduct the testing if you are going to suppress, lie about, and then simply ignore the results if they come in contrary to your wishes and expectations?

I have grown weary of reading "I don't know if Hank Skinner is guilty or innocent, but ..."   Twila Busby, in the final moments of her life, yanked a tell-tale hair from her killer. That was DA John Mann's position, and it seems right to me. The post-conviction DNA testing, which the State sponsored, has already proven that hair came from someone other than Hank Skinner. So why is Hank Skinner still in prison, much less on death row?

Can someone explain that to me?

8 comments:

Patricia said...

Many of us say "I don't know if Hank Skinner is guilty or innocent, but ..." because we had not heard that particular hair had been definitively tied to someone. The other part of my excuse for that little statement is that I can think of a lot of ways a hair could wind up in my hand after I was killed.

That said, I take interest not so much because of a certainty of Hank Skinner's innocence, but because he could be, and we have untested evidence that could prove it. I care because it seems something is terribly rotten in Texas' judicial system. I care because it seems a terrible precedent has been set here in Texas--our "leadership," if you want to call it that, fears losing votes by being too soft on crime; and now that irreversible punishment has been meted out, it fears losing votes when the constituents find out the truth.

I care because if he is innocent (and, really, I'm pretty close to saying he is), a human being has spent over 16 years in custody, most of those fearing for his life. I care because I want the Busby/Caler family to have justice, and hopefully, peace.

I care because the railroading that happened to Hank Skinner could happen to me or mine.

Thank you for what you do here. I have faith that the more people speak intelligently about this, the closer we'll get to having a truly fair justice system.

tsj said...

It is, of course, completely proper to say "I don't know if Hank Skinner is innocent or not, but ... "

At it's heart the statement is simply an expression that the writer is keeping an open mind and admitting to insufficient evidence to make a firm decision. It's a healthy skepticism. I must of course support that.

The frustration I expressed in my post had more to do with the dichotomy of Texas (and death penalty proponents) being so confident of their position that they would literally kill, while those who want to see the DNA tested being so timid they begin each post or article with the oft said phrase.

I would like to see just one other writer study the evidence carefully, argue that the DNA should be tested, and do so without the "I don't know" qualifier.

Catherine Turley said...

you never have to worry about being proven wrong, if you fight for justice and not the person. odds are that the hair came from the killer, but maybe she tossled someone's hair at the party. it will only be significant if they tie it to the uncle (why would she be touching him) or tie it to the prints from the bag.

tsj said...

Catherine,

Right you are about the prints. Texas has Uncle Robert's prints on file, since he had been convicted of several felonies, as had Hank. I find it almost impossible to believe that in all this time, no one ever made that comparison.

I think it's actually more appalling that the handprint on the bag which held the murder weapon remains untested than the DNA remains untested. The police should have been making that comparison on day one. The fact that they didn't then and won't now (at least officially) adds to my belief that Hank Skinner if factually innocent.

Anonymous said...

The murder weapon was the knife found on the porch -- the one with Skinner's and one of the boy's blood all over it. And no hair was "yanked" from anyone's head.

Anonymous said...

Roger Coleman could the seaman have been changed with the seaman that Coleman give at the time for testing and handed in
for DNA testing instead.

mrmeadowlark said...

The thing about the DNA in the Coleman case is that all it proves is that, at some point between the last time Wanda McCoy showered and the time she was murdered, Coleman had intercourse with her. IIRC (and I have researched this case over the years), there was genetic material from THREE MEN recovered from the body in Coleman's case. One of those men was Coleman.... one of them was presumably her husband, but it is unknown who the third man was, because, as far as everyone knows, no one ever bothered to try to find out. It is known that another man in the area made a statement a few years afterwards that could be taken as an accidental confession that he actually murdered Wanda McCoy. And, I recall reading somewhere that there were some people in the area at that time who believed that McCoy and Coleman were having an affair. In short, there was concrete evidence of three possible suspects in this case, but the Authorities were so obsessed with it being Coleman from the get go, that they deliberately neglected to pursue any other possible suspect in this case. The DNA only proves they had intercourse. Had Roger still been alive when the DNA testing took place, any competent defense attorney would have argued this. That none of his attorneys ever made this point makes me wonder if they got their law credentials out of a crackerjack box.

mrmeadowlark said...
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