Va. inmate taking execution appeal in many directions Roger Keith Coleman faces death in electric chair tonight.

May 20, 1992|By New York Times News Service

RICHMOND, Va. -- In court appeals and television appearances a day before his scheduled execution tonight, Virginia death row inmate Roger Keith Coleman tried to plead his case for a federal hearing in a bizarre mix of law, politics and public relations that has come to symbolize the bitter issues surrounding the death penalty in America.

Supporters say Coleman's case dramatizes the degree to which even substantial questions of guilt or innocence no longer merit federal hearings in death penalty cases. Critics, including a majority of those in Grundy, Va., where the murder and rape of which he was convicted took place 11 years ago, say Coleman was fairly prosecuted and deserves to die in Virginia's electric chair.

As the television appearances were going on, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday declined to hear Coleman's most recent appeal.

His lawyers planned a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But at a time when Supreme Court decisions have dramatically cut down the appeal options of prisoners and seem certain to increase the pace of executions radically for the nation's 2,588 death row inmates, Coleman's case has dramatized the issues in death penalty law like few, if any, in recent years.

Coleman, 33, who was convicted of raping and stabbing to death Wanda McCoy, his wife's sister, in 1981, spent yesterday visiting with his girlfriend, pleading his case on programs like the "Today" and "Donahue" shoes and proclaiming his innocence.

"I continue to fight, realistically expecting to die tomorrow," Coleman said in an interview yesterday from his cell next door to the electric chair. "I shall not give up the fight until I'm free or dead."

To supporters, particularly death penalty critics, Coleman's case has highlighted the degree to which the Supreme Court has slammed the door on legitimate appeals.

"Almost no one believes in executing a person who, in fact, could be innocent," said Stephen B. Bright, head of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

"This is a case that shows how the Supreme Court's very broad and drastic changing of the rules has resulted in a case where he's been denied any hearing even though he may be innocent," Mr. Bright said.

To critics, including most people in his hometown of Grundy, Coleman's case says more about the public relations abilities of his defenders than the failings of the courts.

"He's going to go right on to the chair lying," said Milton E. Justice, 76, who lived just below the white house where Wanda McCoy was killed.

Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder announced Monday that he would not intervene in the execution scheduled for 11 o'clock tonight at the state prison in Jarratt.

Yesterday, Coleman's lawyer, Kathleen A. Behan of Washington, pursued leads and filed the new legal motion that was rejected by the appeals court panel.

Ms. Behan said Mr. Wilder's decision brought forth a witness who she said could absolve Coleman.

She said a man called her from Lexington, Ky., and said a key prosecution witness had told him before the trial that she could not remember what time Coleman stopped by her trailer the night of the murder. In court, the same woman testified to a precise time -- 10:20 p.m.

"She was the only witness contradicting his alibi defense," Ms. Behan said. "This would have been the crucial issue that would have changed the mind of the jury and resulted in acquittal."

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