Capital punishment: An undeserved fate


"May God Have Mercy: A True Story of Crime and Punishment," by John C. Tucker. W.W. Norton. 358 pages. $27.50. This gripping book about a crime and a convict - the place where it happened; the workings of the American justice system; the doubts about whodunit - demonstrates all that is wrong with capital punishment, while proving that a good and well-told account of a real case is far more intriguing than any mystery novel.

On May 20, 1992, concluding more than 10 years of agonizing protests and appeals, Roger Coleman was executed in Virginia's electric chair for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law, Wanda Fay McCoy. Coleman could have been guilty or innocent. Had the sentence allowed him to live, his plight very likely would have settled with the verdict. But death is different.

The story begins in the bleak coal-mining town of Grundy, Va., the heart of Appalachia. Roger Coleman was married to one of the 15 siblings of the victim. The families were close, the men working in the mines, the women keeping modest houses near one another.

Roger was one of three men Wanda trusted to let into the house when her husband was out. When Brad McCoy returned home on the night of March 10, 1981 to discover the stripped and bloody body of his wife, Coleman's access placed him within a circle of suspects which zeroed on him mainly because he had a previous conviction for attempted rape.

Coleman steadfastly denied guilt and presented a cogent alibi that at trial was turned on him by a skillful prosecutor pitted against inexperienced and poorly prepared defense counsel. His defense wasn't throughly developed until death row made him eligible for the attentions of expert execution-forestallers. He drew the best: the prestigious Washington law firm of Arnold & Porter, and a free-lance organization run by a minister, Jim McCloskey, with an amazing record for exonerating innocent convicts.

His advocates worked exhaustively to save him. Court review was frustrated early on when Coleman's new lawyers filed an appeal one day too late, causing the Virginia courts to dismiss the case and the federal courts to deny jurisdiction because he had failed to exhaust state remedies. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider the paradox only to approve it. Nevertheless, legal maneuvering kept Coleman and hope alive through the years.

Tucker's chapters on the last desperate days are poignant disaster-writing: the futile final search for irrefutable evidence of innocence; the frenzied media blitz: major stories in Time and Newsweek, appearances on national talk shows; the clemency petition endorsed by the pope and Mother Teresa to an obdurate Governor Wilder, who dangled the possibility that a polygraph exam - taken and understandably failed on the day of execution - might be efficacious.

Roger Coleman was electrocuted just 15 minutes off schedule as the Supreme Court denied a final petition and the governor personally gave the order to proceed. Accounts about the last moments of the condemned are legion. This one is incomparable. Turning the last page, one no longer focuses on whether Roger Coleman was or was not guilty. If innocent he was martyred; if guilty he was unduly glorified. He did not deserve either fate.

Elsbeth Bothe is a retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge, who represented a number of death row inmates as a lawyer and tried capital cases as a judge. She retired after spending 18 years on the bench.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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