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On The Front Lines

The Rutherford Institute Asks Virginia Supreme Court to Allow DNA Testing to Determine Guilt or Innocence of Coleman

"An individual convicted of a crime, or the public on his behalf, has a right to know whether DNA evidence exculpates him."

-Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a "friend of the court" brief with the Virginia Supreme Court in support of a request to test DNA evidence in the case of Roger Coleman, who was executed for rape and murder in 1992 in the wake of a public outcry over the uncertainty of his guilt. The brief argues that DNA tests developed after Coleman's execution would show conclusively whether or not he committed the crime, and that the public has a right to request the testing and be made aware of the results.

The American public is engaged in a fierce debate surrounding the death penalty. A conclusive answer to the question of whether or not an innocent man was executed will add unique and important information as to whether or not capital punishment is an appropriate form of punishment to be undertaken by our judicial system. John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, has called for a moratorium on the death penalty in light of overwhelming evidence that the system is consistently error-bound and flawed. Justice is done when innocent defendants are declared innocent and guilty defendants are convicted. One step toward ensuring that trials achieve justice is requiring the government to produce evidence, including DNA in government possession, that would indicate conclusively the guilt or innocence of the accused. The public has a First Amendment right to examine judicial records, except where there is a compelling government interest in keeping the evidence secret. Any governmental interest in keeping the Coleman case DNA secret, is, according to the petition for appeal in the Coleman case, "solely to advance the political agenda of certain government actors, and to shield them from embarrassment."

Since 1973, 101 individuals have been exonerated after evidence of their innocence was brought to light.
According to Whitehead, "human nature and the law of averages decree that if 101 individuals have prevailed in proving their innocence there must be many more who have not been able to do so. Whether through lack of resources, opportunity or time, these individuals go to their death innocent of the crimes for which they were charged. If just one innocent person is wrongly executed, that is one too many. A moratorium simply acknowledges the need for more justice, not less."

The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.

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Nisha N. Mohammed
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