EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story is one of 38 featured in the newly released book, “Murder in the Mountains: High-profile cases in the Deep South counties of Southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia,” by the editorial staffs of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph and Register-Herald in Beckley.
GRUNDY, Va. — Wanda Faye Thompson McCoy picked up the phone around 9:30 p.m. at her home in the remote Long Bottom area near Grundy, Virginia. She recognized the voice on the other end of the line.
Her husband, Bradley, was calling from his workplace at a coal company because, he would later say, his 19-year-old wife “was more or less afraid to stay by herself.”
It was the last time they would talk.
Approximately an hour later on that Tuesday, March 10, 1981, the young woman was brutally raped and murdered. Her assailant slashed a wound in her neck four inches deep, severing her jugular vein, according to court testimony. She was also stabbed twice in the chest.
Bradley McCoy left work around 11:05 and arrived home about 10 minutes later to find his wife in a pool of blood in their bedroom, he said at the subsequent murder trial.
Upon his discovery of the body, Bradley called his father Hezzie, who notified the authorities. A dispatcher at the sheriff’s department testified that she received the call at 11:21.
The victim’s body was “still warm,” said county medical examiner Dr. Thomas McDonald, when he arrived at the scene of the crime. He placed the approximate time of death at 10:30 p.m.
Forensic photos taken at the scene indicated Wanda’s body was dragged from the living room to the bedroom.
A state medical examiner, Dr. David Oxley, would testify that Wanda died from a “slash wound to the throat.” Word quickly spread that the teenager had nearly been decapitated.
The Wytheville office of Virginia State Police began the investigation, led by Trooper Jack Davidson. He announced that the following Monday night that Roger Keith Coleman, also of Grundy, had been arrested for the crime. A press report indicated that Bradley McCoy had given police Coleman’s name.
Coleman, 22, was married to the victim’s sister.
So began a sensational, emotionally charged public spectacle on the local, national and international level that continued even after Coleman’s execution by the state of Virginia on May 20, 1992.
• • •
One year and a week after the murder, the county courthouse in Grundy opened its doors for the first day of Coleman’s trial. Newsweek magazine would later report that signs were visible stating “Time for another hanging in Grundy,” and that townspeople lined up for seats in the gallery.
Circuit Court Judge Nick E. Persin sequestered the jury at a local motel, with good reason. There was plenty of talk going around.
Coleman’s past was known in the county. He had gotten into trouble as a teenager for making obscene phone calls, according to a story reported years later in The Washington Post Magazine.
In April 1977, shortly before his graduation from Grundy High School, Coleman knocked on the door at the home of Brenda Rife. The area was suffering from then-frequent flooding, causing the school to be closed, and phone lines were down. According to court records cited in an Associated Press story, Coleman asked for a glass of water, then drew a gun.
At gunpoint, he made Rife tie up her 6-year-old daughter, then threw Rife onto a bed. She refused his order to undress, and escaped when she realized that Coleman had left his gun outside the room.
Coleman was sentenced to three years in the state penitentiary for the attack. He served 20 months, according to the Post.
On a dark and cold Monday night in January 1981, two women working in the Buchanan County library had an unsettling encounter with a man who they would identify as Coleman.
According to a story first reported in the Bristol (Virginia) Herald-Courier, Patricia Hatfield said that the man walked through the front door with “this cold, dead look,” and masturbated on the desk. He ran off as she called police.
The other library worker, Jean Gilbert, was also an artist, the newspaper story related. She drew a picture of the stranger. A policeman suggested he could be Coleman, and a check of a high school yearbook resulted in a “spot on” identification. Gilbert is now deceased.
Local law enforcement did not pursue the 1981 complaint, Hatfield said. After Coleman was charged with McCoy’s death, Hatfield told the Herald-Courier that she thought, “If somebody had taken the library thing seriously, this might not have happened.”
Coleman pleaded innocent of the charges of rape and of murder in the commission of rape. The maximum sentence for murder in Virginia was death.
• • •
The prosecution in the McCoy murder trial began making its case on March 16, 1982, calling 21 witnesses to the stand that day.
A forensic expert from Roanoke, Virginia, Elmer Gist Jr., detailed that he had examined hair, saliva and blood samples from Coleman, and samples of hair and semen taken from the victim’s body, according to trial coverage in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.
Gist said that Coleman’s blood type was B, which he said is present in about 10 percent of the population. Semen taken from the victim’s vagina indicated B type blood.
McCoy had type O blood — the same type found sprinkled on Coleman’s blue jeans, Gist said.
Blood was detected on a yellow-handled pocket knife surrendered by Coleman, but the amount was too limited to determine origin or identification, Gist reported.
During the four-day trial, the prosecution contended that earlier on the night of the murder, Coleman had gone to the residence of Sandra Stiltner, across Slate Creek from the McCoys’ home. They alleged that Stiltner’s husband met Coleman at the front door. Coleman reportedly asked for a tape he claimed he had left there a few days earlier. He then left.
Grundy attorney Tom Scott, aiding in the prosecution’s case, told the court, “Wanda Faye McCoy was not the intended victim. This man is a shrewd individual. He left his tape there … His plan had been foiled. … He could not kill and rape.”
According to the state’s timeline, Coleman then waded across Slate Creek to Wanda McCoy’s residence, believing correctly that her husband was away at work.
During his final statement, Prosecutor Mickey McGlothlin discounted a statement by Coleman which indicated blood found on his pants leg — which matched the victim’s blood type — may have come from a cat scratch. The prosecutor noted that Coleman said he was not sure where the blood came from, or how his pants legs got wet.
Scott said Coleman had failed to “account for his steps” from the speculated time of the killing to the time he arrived at his home.
Coleman, during testimony, maintained he was at a coal company bath house in Grundy when the slaying occurred.
Scott stated, “Mrs. McCoy was killed in a cold, calculated, inhumane manner.” As he held color photographs of her body before her jurors, he talked about the deep throat wound and the chest stabbings.
“That’s an animal that did that,” he said.
McGlothlin recommended a death sentence to the jury.
Eventually, it was the defense’s turn to present its final statement.
Coleman had sat most of the morning slumped back in a brown cushioned chair, according to the Daily Telegraph account of the trial. His hands remained clasped until one of his court-appointed attorneys, Stephen Arey, stood to address the court.
For the first time in his trip, Coleman momentarily shed tears.
Arey reviewed principal pieces of evidence that had been presented.
He said that foreign hair on Wanda’s body was “consistent” with that of the defendant, but that experts could not say if it was definitely that of Coleman.
There was blood on the woman’s leg that was the same blood type as Coleman, but he reminded the court that about “10 percent” of all persons have Type B blood.
He noted that about 40 to 45 percent of the population had Type O blood, the same as Wanda McCoy’s — the same type found on Coleman’s pants.
“These are not unique facts,” Arey emphasized. “These are percentages … .”
He then suggested that evidence at the scene may have been tampered with due to the numerous law enforcement officers who had been summoned to the murder scene. He questioned why the scene was not immediately secured.
“There were people parading in and out of there that night. Was the light on or off? Was the furniture overturned or not?” he asked.
“They must have been falling all over themselves in there.”
A discrepancy was pointed out, that one officer recalled that the victim’s hands were near her socks when he arrived at the home. All other witnesses said that the woman’s hand were raised above her head.
McGlothlin, responding to that comment, said, “The officer made a mistake.”
Judge Persin read the jurors their instructions — and ordered Buchanan County Sheriff Auburn Ratliff to check the jury room for “any foreign matter.”
The jury began deliberations about 6 p.m. on that Thursday night. They were dismissed at 8 p.m. for dinner, and returned at about 9:30 p.m. By approximately 10:45, they had reached a decision on both the rape and murder charges.
• • •
Consistent with Virginia state law, the jury returned to the courtroom the next morning to deliberate on the sentence for the murder conviction.
Before their verdict was ready, Persin said “threats had been received.” He cleared the courtroom of “some 150 spectators,” according to the Daily Telegraph coverage. Each spectator was searched before being allowed back in the room to hear the jury’s decision.
They recommended the death penalty. Persin set sentencing for the following month, nothing that state law required the filing of a report by the probation department before he could act.
On April 23, the sentencing hearing commenced. James Bevins, a probation and parole officer, delivered his pre-sentencing report. Under cross examination, he said he interviewed jailers and said their comments were “favorable. … They had no problems with Mr. Coleman.”
Defense attorney Terry Jordan pointed out that the report noted Coleman’s “intelligence and religious beliefs.” He said Coleman, who was still in the custody of the county sheriff’s department, attended all the religious services he could while in jail — and had taken a correspondence Bible course.
Appealing for mercy, Jordan said, “We submit that this man should live … .”
McGlothlin, in rebuttal, recalled the trial testimony that Wanda McCoy was at home, “minding her own business, (when) the defendant … raped her, brutally murdered her.”
He cited the 1977 attempted rape conviction.
“Fortunately, she got away,” the prosecutor said. “Wanda Faye Thompson McCoy did not get away.”
“He showed Wanda Faye Thompson McCoy absolutely no mercy. No mercy whatsoever,” McGlothlin said. “He must be banished from the community. I ask the court to sentence him to death.”
He called Coleman a “dangerous man,” and commented that many men turn to religion while in jail.
Persin asked Coleman if he had anything to say. He said he believed the murderer was still walking the streets.
“I still maintain my innocence,” he said. “But I will not ask for mercy.”
Whatever would happen to him “is the Lord’s will,” he said.
On the rape conviction, Persin sentenced Coleman to a life prison term. Then he addressed his decision on the murder charge.
He said it is very difficult to sit and judge one’s fellow man, but that it is sometimes “absolutely necessary if we’re going to live in an orderly society.”
As to the jury’s recommendation, he said, “Now the court is faced with that same awesome responsibility the jury had. … The court puts a great deal of emphasis in jury verdicts. To do otherwise would really frustrate the system under which we operate in this country.”
Calling the murder “a vicious crime,” he said, “I can’t disagree with the verdict of the jury. Therefore the judgment of the court … is that you be sentenced to death in the electric chair and the court will set the date of execution for July 12, 1982.”
The judge offered the opinion that whatever happened to him in the future, Coleman “must face a higher judge than this court and it is my hope and prayer that the higher judge will grant you mercy.”
Scott, one of the prosecution’s attorneys, told the Herald Courier later, “There are many thoughtful people on both sides of the issue of the death penalty — and all of them have valid points. But if ever there were a case for the death penalty, this was the case.”
It sounded final. It was anything but final.
• • •
Ten years later, Roger Keith Coleman was still living on death row.
Death sentences trigger automatic appeals, taking months and years to play out, and Coleman’s case was no different.
As time unfolded, stories started to circulate claiming that another Buchanan County resident had raped and killed Wanda McCoy, and that he had attacked other women near Grundy.
In early 1992, one of those women told her story of an attack to a Roanoke television station, according to newspaper reports. She died the next day – from a prescription pill overdose, a police report concluded.
Coleman’s defense tried to introduce that line of stories as “new evidence” in their appeals.
Federal Judge Glen Williams told The Associated Press in May 1992, “The man implicated denied it, and his blood (type A) doesn’t match the evidence and Roger Coleman’s does.”
That crucial point was hammered home by Virginia Senior Assistant Attorney General Donald R. Curry, who presented the state’s case against Coleman’s petition.
“He (Coleman) is attempting to abuse and manipulate the system,” Curry said. “These claims are contrived.”
Tom Scott, the lawyer who helped prosecute Coleman in his original 1981 trial, reinforced Williams’ contention about the 1992 proceedings, stating that “the scientific evidence already in existence, including the DNA evidence, which Coleman himself commissioned, reinforces Coleman’s guilt and the fact that he acted alone ….”
Scott predicted, correctly, that the appeal “will clearly be rejected.”
After failing with state appeals, the next step was an appeal to the federal courts.
Coleman’s legal team missed the deadline to file that federal appeal – by one day. The United States Supreme Court eventually ruled that the missed deadline, as specified in law, actually did matter, and that the right to an appeal had been forfeited.
• • •
Along the way, Coleman’s case was transformed into a sort of national plebiscite on capital punishment in America. At the heart of this effort were two people who became the convicted man’s chief advocates – James C. McCloskey, executive director of Centurion Ministries, and Washington, D.C.-based attorney Kathy Behan.
Celebrities, big-city newspapers, magazines and national TV talk shows were recruited to allow Coleman to proclaim his innocence as the date approached for his appointment with the electric chair.
Former Bristol Herald-Courier reporter Kathy Still said earlier this year, “They thought they’d found the poster boy for wrongful conviction in a death-row case.”
The reputation of Grundy and its legal apparatus were trashed.
The initial trial was described as “a garden-variety capital case” in a 1992 Newsweek magazine article. It said the crime took place “in a small, sooted town of central Appalachia,” and it gave rise to “the kind of twisted tale that gives Southern Gothics a good name. Trouble is, this one’s not fiction … .”
The article described the process as “Investigation, trial, conviction, some mediocre lawyering, a few unsuccessful appeals – in America, the defendant gets a basic trial, not a perfect one.”
The article alleged falsely, “Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death, wholly on circumstantial evidence.”
Regarding the missed filing deadline for a federal appeal, the national news magazine quoted Behan as saying, “We’ve all heard of people who get off because of a technicality. … Roger is going to be executed because of one.”
Coleman had sought out McCloskey in 1988. His Centurion Ministries represented clients who they thought may have been wrongly convicted. McCloskey had a good record of identifying prosecutorial errors and of freeing innocent people.
In a 2006 article in the magazine Philadelphia, author Matthew Teague said that when McCloskey met Coleman, “he found the inmate to be wholly unlike the monster the locals described. He seemed thoughtful and articulate, soft-spoken and gentle.”
The meeting took three hours, the article said, even though McCloskey had already become familiar with the case by analyzing trial transcripts, legal motions, witness accounts and the like.
“McCloskey already knew all the details, but he wanted to test Coleman, to hear his voice, to know him as a man,” Teague wrote. McCloskey was quoted as saying that Coleman “looked me square in the eye. Earnest. Authentic. Forthright. Not charismatic, he could never snow you over with his charisma. But he was forthright.”
Eventually, Coleman made his case for his innocence on Larry King Live, the Today Show and the Phil Donahue Show, one of the top nationally-syndicated TV talk shows of the era.
The Washington Post Magazine story said, “Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Roger Coleman had presented his case calmly and articulately, with logical explanations and apparent sincerity.”
Pope John Paul II and Mother Theresa spoke out against his execution, according to The Associated Press.
A massive last-ditch appeal was launched to have people write letters to Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder, asking him to call off Coleman’s execution.
Roger Keith Coleman’s face was not the one that the people of Grundy would have wanted to represent their region on the cover of a national news magazine.
Yet the bespectacled visage of Coleman was the cover image of the May 18, 1992 edition of Time. The bold headline beneath his photo stated, “THIS MAN MIGHT BE INNOCENT. THIS MAN IS DUE TO DIE.”
Coleman died two days later in a prison electric chair.
His final words included, “An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven I hope Americans will recognize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized nations have. …”
Still, who witnessed the execution, said there were “around 100 TV cameras” outside the prison that day.
• • •
Even after the execution, the case did not go away. Death penalty opponents pushed for more DNA testing, using newly refined procedures, to find out once and for all if Coleman had been guilty or innocent.
Mark R. Warner, who had been sworn in as Virginia’s governor in 2002, ordered new testing of material that had been preserved since March 1981. It was said to be the second case nationally in which DNA evidence of an executed man was analyzed.
The results were announced in January 2006. The chance that Coleman was not the murderer was established at 1 in 19 million. Warner announced that the testing had conclusively proven that Coleman was guilty. The debate was over.
To his credit, McCloskey fully acknowledged he had wrongly backed Coleman.
“We now know that Roger’s proclamations of innocence, even as he sat strapped in the electric chair moments before his death, were false,” McCloskey said in a press statement dated Jan. 12, 2006. “Indeed, this is a bitter pill to swallow.”
“Even though the results are far different than I expected, and even though this particular truth feels like a kick in the stomach, I do not regret that this effort has at last brought finality to all who have had an interest in this matter,” he said.
“I trust that all those with the power and authority to do so throughout the nation will follow in Governor Warner’s footsteps – to have the courage and vision to preserve all the biological evidence and allow post conviction and even post execution DNA and other forensic testing to go forward so that the absolute truth may be known to all.
“No one should fear the truth.”