Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
From the moment of his arrest until he took his final breath in the electric chair, Roger Keith Coleman insisted he didn’t rape and murder 19-year-old Wanda McCoy, his wife’s sister, on the night of March 10, 1981.
Coleman, a coal miner from Grundy, Virginia, had a history of sexual intimidation and violence, including a previous conviction for attempted rape. Despite his sordid past and compelling physical and forensic evidence in the case, he convinced an army of supporters—from spiritual leaders and lawyers to strangers around the world—that he did not commit the crime.
“An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight,” Coleman said just moments before he was executed on May 20, 1992. “When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.”
In 2006, posthumous DNA testing revealed the truth about Coleman’s claims to innocence.
Coleman’s Escalating History of Sexual Offenses
In 1972, 13-year-old Roger Coleman made a series of obscene phone calls. “When he called, he described sexual acts that he would like to perform with me. If my sister answered the phone, he would ask her the same questions,” Lisa Merritt Silcox, a former Coleman classmate, stated in the 2006 A&E documentary Deceiving Innocence: Roger Coleman.
Coleman called the sisters numerous times, describing his sexual fantasies in graphic detail. Other classmates began receiving the same types of calls. In juvenile court, Coleman admitted making the lewd calls, but insisted that voices in his head urged him to do it.
As time progressed, Coleman’s behaviors escalated into more aggressive and bold acts of sexual intimidation and violence. On April 7, 1977, just a month before his high school graduation, Coleman attacked elementary school teacher Brenda Ratliff (then Brenda Rife) at gunpoint and attempted to rape her as Ratliff’s young daughter watched in horror. Coleman received a three-year jail sentence, but served less than two-thirds of that.
A year after his release, authorities arrested Coleman after he exposed himself to librarians Pat Hatfield and Jean Gilbert and proceeded to ejaculate on the floor of the Buchanan County Public Library. The case didn’t even make it to trial before Coleman was arrested again, for the crime of murder.
The Murder of Wanda McCoy
On March 10, 1981, Wanda McCoy was discovered lying half-naked in a pool of blood. She had been raped, stabbed to death and nearly decapitated. Although Coleman provided an alibi, investigators deemed his story not credible and arrested him.
Physical and forensic evidence presented at trial included a lack of forced entry, a pubic hair found on McCoy that was consistent with Coleman’s, blood found on Coleman’s jeans that matched McCoy’s blood type and semen taken from McCoy’s body that matched Coleman’s blood type. “The timeline also gave Coleman sufficient time to rape and murder the victim and leave before her husband came home from work,” Thomas Scott, a criminal defense lawyer who helped prosecute Coleman, tells A&E Real Crime.
In 1982, a jury found Coleman guilty of rape and murder and sentenced him to death. Multiple appeals, which were supported by the anti-death penalty movement, were denied, including a petition for executive clemency. Hours before his scheduled execution, Coleman submitted to a polygraph test and failed.
“The circumstances of his polygraph test were just bizarre. I don’t think there’s ever been any other instance of a test done on the day of execution or so close to an execution,” Leonard Saxe, a social psychologist who has written extensively on lie detection, tells A&E Real Crime.
A last-minute bid for a stay of execution was denied, and Coleman died in the electric chair on May 20, 1992, at the Greensville Correctional Center.
Pathological Liar or Convinced of a False Truth?
Coleman kept a prison diary in which he often wrote about his innocence and railed against the judicial system. He made countless media appearances to talk about his alleged wrongful conviction and convinced hordes of supporters that he did not rape and murder his sister-in-law. He seized any opportunity to reiterate that he did not commit the crime.
Marie Deans, a legal specialist who counseled Virginia’s death row inmates, spent almost a decade communicating with Coleman. She believed Coleman suffered undiagnosed neurological problems and brain damage, and concluded that if he had committed the crime, he didn’t know it. “I just did not get the sense that he thought he could pull the wool over my eyes, or that he was trying to,” she told the Washington Post.
“A person can come to believe something that’s not true. And part of it is that when you rehearse something so often, the more you rehearse it, the more you say it, the truer it becomes,” says Saxe. In this case, according to Saxe, the fact that Coleman was in prison gave him an opportunity to repeat, “I didn’t do it,” over and over again. “That is the condition under which people can alter memories. It’s the repetition that helps them recreate or alter the reality of a situation.”
But Scott and other experts label Coleman as a psychopath and pathological liar. “Manipulation and lying are core features of psychopathy. Coleman fit this bill to a T,” says Scott. “He was a brilliant, well-spoken psychopath.”
In Deceiving Innocence, Donna Moore, a clinical psychologist, pointed out that Coleman brutally murdered his sister-in-law and then went home to his wife and acted like nothing ever happened. “It suggested you were dealing with a serious psychopath,” said Moore. “Psychopaths cannot experience remorse or empathy with the victim.”
Coleman’s Media Blitz
Coleman’s case garnered sympathetic national and international media attention. “Coleman had an IQ of 140 or higher and was extremely convincing. In fact, he was probably the smartest inmate ever to serve on death row, including Ted Bundy. As a consequence, he became a media darling and ‘America’s Capital Punishment Poster Boy,'” says Scott.
Coleman appeared on PBS, Larry King Live, Nightline, the Today Show and Good Morning America. “Every minute of my time that night has been accounted for,” Coleman told Bryant Gumbel on Today. Several outlets urged their viewers to petition the governor for Coleman’s clemency.
On May 8, 1992, Coleman made the cover of TIME magazine. The headline printed over his picture read: “This man might be innocent. This man is due to die.” Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder received thousands of calls and letters urging leniency.
“I believe the national media outlets were intellectually dishonest in presenting Coleman’s case and were complicit with him in spreading this hogwash, which we all know now was a bald-face lie,” says Scott.
Posthumous DNA Testing
After death, Coleman became a symbol of the wrongfully convicted. In 2001, activists sued the state of Virginia, demanding a DNA test using technology that did not exist before Coleman’s execution. The request was denied by the Supreme Court of Virginia in 2002. “Few executions in modern times have proceeded in the face of stronger claims of innocence than Mr. Coleman’s,” the Washington Post stated in a 2003 opinion piece, appealing to Mark Warner, then governor of Virginia. Warner eventually honored the request for DNA testing.
In 2006, Coleman’s guilt was conclusively confirmed through DNA testing, with only a 1-in-19-million chance of a random match. “The test was conducted in a lab in Canada, an anti-death penalty country, so the skeptics and those in denial couldn’t cry foul or home cooking,” says Scott.
But there are those who have and still question the truth, including Jim McCloskey, whose organization, Centurion Ministries, worked to prove Coleman’s innocence. “To this day, I wrestle with did Roger do this or did he not? I don’t know,” McCloskey told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in a September 2020 interview. “It’s a dilemma that will follow me until the grave.”