Advances in DNA testing may one day show that an innocent person was executed in the United States, perhaps creating the "tipping point" needed to eventually abolish the barbaric practice. That day may be sooner than you think if a DNA sample in a Virginia case is retested.
If the tests show Roger Keith Coleman did not rape and murder his sister-in-law in 1981, it will mark the first time in the United States an executed person has been scientifically proved innocent, say death penalty opponents, who are keenly aware that such a result could have a powerful effect on public opinion.
"I think it would be the final straw for a lot of people who are on the fence on the death penalty," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington.
A Gallup poll in October found that 64 percent of Americans support the death penalty. That is the lowest level in 27 years, down from a high of 80 percent in 1994.
Coleman, whose case drew worldwide attention — including from Pope John Paul II — was executed in Virginia's electric chair in 1992.
"An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight," the 33-year-old said moments before he was electrocuted. "When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have."
His eloquence, of course, is not proof of his innocence. Prosecutors say they had a mountain of evidence against Coleman, and as the AP story notes, Coleman failed a lie-detector test hours before his execution.
The bottom line:
Whether Coleman and others on America's death rows actually did the crimes they were convicted of is irrelevant. The death penalty is abhorant, its use saying much more about us as a society than it ever could about the killers condemned to die. That the imposition of the death penalty could mean an innocent person might die only adds to the horror.