Sleep well, death-penalty proponents

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated Columnist

So he’s guilty as charged.

Never mind the timeline that some thought made it almost impossible for him to have committed the crime. Never mind the book casting doubt on his culpability. Never mind his death chair declaration: “An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight.”

Never mind any of it. Last week, a DNA test confirmed that Roger Coleman did indeed commit the crime for which the state of Virginia executed him in 1992, the rape and murder of his sister-in-law Wanda McCoy, 11 years before.

For those who believed in Coleman’s innocence, to say nothing of those who simply believe capital punishment an unwieldy, unfair and uncivilized way of punishing crime, the news is a bitter blow. Some had imagined Coleman’s might be the case that put a human face on the death penalty’s fallibility and the potential consequences thereof.

Instead, the only thing proven is that Coleman, in addition to being a rapist and murderer, was also a con artist and liar.

If proof of his guilt is disappointing to those who oppose capital punishment, one imagines it is received more warmly by death penalty advocates, particularly those in the gubernatorial and prosecutorial offices of Virginia. The state’s criminal justice system stands vindicated.

It is telling, though, that Virginia resisted for years allowing the sophisticated DNA testing, unavailable during Coleman’s lifetime, that conclusively proved his guilt. This, even though a coalition of newspapers and an anti-death penalty group offered to pick up the tab. The state fought them all the way to its Supreme Court. After the court ruled in Virginia’s favor and the coalition asked Gov. Mark Warner to authorize testing on his own authority, he dithered for four years before finally giving approval.

Point being, Virginia’s reluctance to allow the test suggests the state had less than maximum confidence in its outcome. Would you resist something you knew would prove you right?

While I can commiserate with those who worked on Coleman’s behalf and feel personally betrayed by him, the larger community of death penalty opponents has as little reason to feel chagrined by these results as death penalty advocates have to celebrate them. The inevitable has only been forestalled, not denied.

Since 1973, more than 120 people have been released from death row after being proven wrongly convicted. In November, the Houston Chronicle reported that Texas likely erred in 1993 when it executed a man named Ruben Cantu for robbery and murder. The only witness to the crime now says he identified Cantu wrongly, under pressure from police. The man who was supposedly Cantu’s partner says Cantu was not with him.

So it is only a matter of time before someone is proven, to a scientific certainty, to have been executed for a crime he did not commit. How can it be otherwise? How can we believe a system conceived by human beings can work without flaw? Or that all mistakes are caught before it is too late?

Not a chance. Someone will die — probably already has — because of a lying cop, a bad lawyer, a mean judge, a botched investigation. But most of all, because some of us prefer to close our eyes to the obvious, be narcotized by denial, sleep in the unearned assurance that the system works for everybody, always.

It had been thought — and hoped — that Roger Coleman would be the wake-up call. He is not.

But someone will be.

And when it happens, those who support capital punishment will have to explain why this was an acceptable death, why an innocent life taken in our name ought not give us pause, ought not bring us shame, ought not make us ill.
Against that day, I have two words of advice for advocates of state-sanctioned killing:

Sleep well.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: