Politics & Policy

Protesting Too Much

I have in my hands a list . . .

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the February 13, 2006, issue of National Review.

“Charlie, what’s the biggest cop mistake?” asks a character in the first episode of the new ABC television show In Justice.

“Making an early assumption?” replies Charlie.

“Yes, an early assumption–and sticking with it.”

And with this insight, the heroes of In Justice–a scrappy team of lawyers and investigators who try to free innocent people from prison–arrive at the breakthrough that allows them to right another wrong. The premise of In Justice is simple: The criminal-justice system is so fundamentally crooked that it requires a weekly corrective from the fresh-faced do-gooders who work at the National Justice Project. The NJP and its caseload may be fictional–a disclaimer at the start of each episode announces that the show “is not intended to reflect any actual event or person”–but they are based on the various “innocence projects” that have sprung up around the country in recent years. Their goal is to help prisoners who claim to be innocent, and many of them focus on death-row inmates.

Some time ago, opponents of the death penalty recognized that if they were ever going to win hearts and minds, they would need to focus less on candlelight vigils than on producing an irrefutable example of an innocent person who had been wrongly sentenced to death. In short, they would need a poster child.

What they got was a cover boy: Roger Keith Coleman, a Virginia man who was convicted of raping and murdering his sister-in-law in 1981. He wound up on the front of Time magazine in 1992. “This man might be innocent,” said the dramatic cover line. “This man is due to die.” Despite Time’s breathless advocacy on Coleman’s behalf–he was described by writer Jill Smolowe as “a poor coal miner, with no spare cash to hire an attorney,” as well as the victim of “circumstantial evidence”–Coleman was executed right on schedule. He refused to admit guilt to the bitter end. “An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight,” he said as he was being strapped into the electric chair.

After meeting Coleman in 1988, one of the country’s most prominent “innocence” crusaders, Jim McCloskey of Centurion Ministries, decided to make Coleman a cause célèbre. For the next four years, McCloskey devoted himself to the case. He attempted to poke holes in the theories of prosecutors, complained about the quality of Coleman’s defense attorneys, and generated an enormous amount of publicity. “I was with Roger until half an hour before he was executed,” says McCloskey. “I really believed he was innocent.” On the night of Coleman’s death, McCloskey promised the condemned man that he would keep fighting to clear his name, and that’s exactly what he did. Coleman’s life and death continued to generate interest and controversy. It was the subject of numerous media reports as well as May God Have Mercy, a 1997 book by John C. Tucker that won plaudits from the likes of Scott Turow. (“If you think you believe in the death penalty,” wrote Turow in a blurb for the paperback edition, “then you must read John Tucker’s lucid, compelling book about blind justice of the wrong kind.”)

No legal proceeding is flawless. But in this instance, the jury reached the correct verdict: As new DNA tests released on January 12 demonstrate, Coleman indisputably committed the crimes for which he was executed. . . .

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John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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