Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Righting a wrongful conviction in Virginia

The following editorial was published by the Washington Post on December 5, 2011.

FOUR YEARS AGO, 15-year-old Edgar Coker Jr. pleaded guilty to a crime he did not commit after his lawyer warned that he could be prosecuted as an adult and subjected to a lengthy prison term if he fought the charges.

Two months later, after Edgar had been sent to a juvenile facility, the 14-year-old girl who accused him of raping her recanted and said she made up the story after her mother walked in on the young couple. The girl’s mother has acknowledged the lie and is now advocating on his behalf.

But as The Post’s Chris L. Jenkins reported, this horrible episode continues to haunt Edgar Coker and has forced him to live with the vilification that comes with being falsely branded a rapist.

Rectifying this injustice should be swift and unconditional, but Virginia’s laws make that virtually impossible. Mr. Coker’s name still appears on the state’s sex-offender registry. Because of that, he was arrested for attending a high school function, and he and his family have been subjected to threats from neighbors who learned of his presence on the list. Prosecutors say they can do nothing to help the young man, who spent 17 months locked up, because they lost jurisdiction once he was released from state custody. Mr. Coker’s new lawyers hope that Virginia’s Supreme Court will give them a chance to challenge the conviction in a trial court, but it is a long shot. His only plausible argument at this stage involves a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel — an argument that Virginia courts are often reluctant to embrace.

A state law allows convicts to go back into court to make a claim of “actual innocence,” but this second chance is not available in the vast majority of instances to those who pleaded guilty. It is not clear because of wording issues whether those adjudicated as juveniles may avail themselves of this law.

Mr. Coker’s case is scheduled to be heard by the state’s high court in January. His lawyers should seek a full pardon from Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), although executive clemency is typically not considered until all court action has been exhausted. The best chance for speedy redress may lie with Virginia’s General Assembly, which reconvenes next month for its annual legislative session. Del. Gregory D. Habeeb, a Roanoke-area Republican, plans to introduce legislation to allow juveniles — even those who entered guilty pleas — to make a claim of actual innocence.

“This is not a partisan issue. This is not a race issue. This is a justice issue,” he says. This change would not guarantee a clean record, but it would rightly give those caught in a paralyzing legal vise a chance to clear their names.

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