A true story of how a man was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, May God Have Mercy exposes the imperfections in the criminal justice system and how it led to the death of an innocent man. Roger Coleman’s case became the main story on nightly newscasts and prominent television shows such as Larry King Live, Nightline, Good Morning America, and the Today Show. Many crucial, yet harmful decisions were made that ultimately resulted in an innocent man’s execution at the death house in Greensville, Virginia. The police, the prosecutor, and the Judge can all be held responsible for Coleman’s death. However, the reason Roger Coleman was not acquitted of the murder of Wanda McCoy in the first place and thus in a position to be executed was because his original lawyers, Steve Arey and Terry Jordan, did not provide him with adequate representation, as required by the Constitution of the United States of America.
Steve Arey and Terry Jordan were young, inexperienced lawyers who should have never even been considered for a capital case. Judge Persin, the presiding Judge in the case, however, decided on these two gentlemen because other more experienced lawyers refused to take the case because of the huge financial sacrifice it would require. Albeit public speculation that Judge Persin’s previous profession as a prosecutor had led him to heavily favor the prosecution, his decision stood. The two prosecutors who Arey and Jordan would be opposed by were Mickey McGlothlin and Tom Scott. Both prosecutors had far more experience than the defense lawyers, but that didn’t stop Judge Persin from appointing Arey and Jordan to the case. It was an obvious mismatch, intentional or not, and was just the beginning of many problems that would arise for the defendant’s case.
The murder of Wanda McCoy took place in Grundy, a small town in Virginia. The year was 1981, and Brad McCoy, Wanda’s husband, arrived home from work to find his wife dead, the apparent victim of a brutal rape and murder. The police investigated the crime scene, recorded witness reports, and searched for suspects. When they identified their prime suspect, Roger Coleman, the police made the arrest. Due to the negative public opinion that had generated following the arrest, Coleman demanded that his lawyers file for a change of venue with the court. Since Grundy was such a small town, it would be very difficult to pick an impartial jury to give Coleman a fair trial. Every person in the town had to have read or seen something on the murder. The fact that the police provided supposed “conclusive” evidence against Roger Coleman and made it public, many of Grundy’s residents wanted to see Coleman sentenced to death.
Steve Arey had been preparing the case to present to Judge Persin, but at the last minute, he notified Terry Jordan that he would not be able to attend due to a prior engagement. Arey’s lack of respect for Coleman and the case in general left Terry Jordan with a crucial decision–whether to seek a continuance or to argue the motion himself. He chose to present the case himself. The defense’s decision to argue the motion was a terrible decision. Not only should Jordan have sought a continuance because he was not prepared to argue the case, but neither of the defense lawyers had done any research or made any effort to obtain evidence to support their case for a change of venue, except for a couple of newspaper clippings and a picture of the hanging-tree sign. The prosecution, on the other hand, had gotten approximately fifty affidavits from members of the town claiming that they did not have any biased feelings about the case. As expected, Judge Persin denied the change of venue request, and effectively set the tone for Roger Coleman’s trial.
The beginning of every trial begins with opening statements, which provide the jury with a preview of the evidence they will provide and what it will effectively show. A lawyer’s opening statement is probably the most important part of the entire trial, and usually puts the jurors leaning favorably towards the side with the more convincing performance. Like any other criminal case, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. They are required to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the defendant committed the crime. Mickey McGlothlin presented an organized and persuasive opening statement that gave the jury the impression that Roger Coleman was guilty based on the significant amount of evidence against him.
The defense’s opening statement should have attacked the evidence that the state provided, and also attacked McGlothlin’s credibility. The defense’s opening statement should have consisted of a description of the friendly relationship that existed between Roger Coleman and the McCoys. It also should have also included Coleman’s alibi–Philip VanDyke–and the fact that VanDyke’s time card reinforces the time that he said he was with Coleman and the time that he clocked into his job. Arey and Jordan also had an opportunity to smear McGlothlin’s credibility by referring to evidence that he failed to mention in his opening argument–the pry mark on the door, the broken fingernails on the victim but no scratches on Coleman, and that the substance found on the victim was soil, not coal dust, which had been on Coleman’s clothes.
The defense counsel didn’t refer to any of those facts. No scientific evidence was brought up, and it failed to respond to McGlothin’s statement that there was evidence that Coleman had in fact admitted to committing the crime. The opening statement was a complete disappointment for Coleman. It started to raise questions inside of Coleman of whether his own defense lawyers thought he was guilty and therefore were not putting the time or effort in to prove his innocence. In either case, his defense lawyers had presented a completely inadequate opening statement, and it left the jury with the feeling that Roger Coleman was guilty.
In addition to failing to present a solid and influential opening argument, another major problem with the defense counsel was their extreme lack of preparation for the trial (their own witnesses and the state’s witnesses). Before the Coleman case, Terry Jordan “had never tried a murder case, a rape case, any case involving blood or hair analysis or a criminal case of any kind that lasted more than one day” (112). Being from Grundy, Jordan should have interviewed most if not all of the local witnesses, but that did not happen. He did not interview all of police officers that were investigating the crime nor did he interview Dr.
McDonald, who was the first one to examine Wanda McCoy’s body and who estimated her time of death. He did not interview Hezzie McCoy, Dr. Oxley (the doctor who performed the autopsy), or even Elmer Gist, who was the state’s blood and hair expert. In fact, Jordan cross-examination of Elmer Gist was solely based on Gist’s report about hair comparisons and one on blood analysis. He had not read anything about blood or hair analysis, because if he had, he would have been more capable of performing an effective cross-examination of the state’s most crucial witness.
Terry Jordan also failed to carefully examine the physical locations that could have led to Coleman’s innocence and acquittal. He never actually went inside the house where the murder took place, nor did he examine the door to see if there was any evidence of forced entry. He never examined the bathhouse where Coleman said his pants got wet from, and he did not go to the mine where Roger worked. The route that Coleman supposedly took that night was never gone over to see how long it took and to see if there was time for him to commit the crime given the stops that he made prior to the murder. Jordan did not look for other witnesses who the state had not identified, and he did not ever ask for VanDyke’s time card, an essential piece of evidence. No photographs were taken at any point, making everything that was presented in court non-visual. Visuals would have made the defense’s case much stronger. Steve Arey had interviewed most of the same witnesses that Jordan interviewed, along with a couple other defense-alibi witnesses.
The state was heavily favored in the case to begin with because of their experience in criminal cases, as opposed to the defense counsel’s lack of experience in such cases. As expected, Judge Persin ruled in favor of the state and Roger Coleman was sentenced to death. Many criminal cases are appealed after their conclusion, and this case was no different. The defense has thirty days to file a Notice of Appeal with the Court. The defense prepared their appeal and mailed it to the Court. However, the attorney general’s office told the defense that they had filed the appeal one day late and that it would not be accepted. This was another huge mistake by the defense. Although a legal technicality should not be the cause for an innocent man’s evidence to be withheld, the law specifically stated that a Notice of Appeal must be filed within thirty days of the Judge signing the order that rejected all of the defense’s arguments. The defense had missed a crucial deadline and Roger Coleman would be punished because of it. The defense would not be able to get the Court to listen to their case again and this would eventually lead to Coleman’s death.
The fact remains that neither Terry Jordan nor Steve Arey conducted a thorough enough investigation to really present a strong case to oppose the prosecution. Roger Coleman was never really given a fair trial, and it ultimately led to his conviction and death. His lawyers failed to use the evidence that was available to get their client acquitted. Their inexperience and lack of motivation resulted in an innocent man’s death. There were many opportunities for the defense counsel to question witnesses, to seek experts’ opinions on the forensic evidence, and to insert new evidence to support Roger Coleman’s case, but they did not do so. Jordan and Arey should have never been appointed as Coleman’s counsel, and that alone made Coleman’s chances of acquittal slim to none. Roger Coleman was never given a fair chance, even later on in the process before he was executed, however, his defense lawyers performed well below the standards that a man on trial for his life deserves. Their terrible mistakes and decisions led to the death of an innocent man.