Killing Roger Coleman: Habeas, Finality, and the Innocence Gap

52 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2007

See all articles by Todd E. Pettys

Todd E. Pettys

University of Iowa - College of Law


For the past fifteen years, the execution of Roger Coleman has served as perhaps the most infamous illustration of the U.S. Supreme Court's determination to help the states achieve finality in their criminal cases. Convicted of rape and murder in 1982, Coleman steadfastly maintained his innocence and drew many supporters to his cause. In its 1991 ruling in Coleman v. Thompson, however, the Court refused to consider the constitutional claims raised in Coleman's habeas petition. The Court ruled that Coleman had forfeited his right to seek habeas relief when, in prior state proceedings, his attorneys mistakenly filed their notice of appeal one day late. Amidst international media attention, Virginia authorities executed Coleman the following year. Faced with continuing controversy about the case, the governor of Virginia ordered new DNA tests in January 2006 - tests that confirmed Coleman's guilt and finally brought an end to a story that began with a young woman's death twenty-five years earlier.

In this Article, Professor Pettys argues that there are important lessons to be learned from the fact that finality was not achieved in Coleman's case until long after the Supreme Court declared the case closed. Although finality is a worthy goal, the Court has failed to account for the fact that finality is exceptionally elusive when the public fears that a person facing severe punishment was convicted of a crime he or she did not commit. Although the Court has said it will adjudicate the merits of a procedurally flawed habeas petition when a prisoner makes a persuasive showing of innocence, Professor Pettys argues that the Court's habeas jurisprudence suffers from an "innocence gap" - a gap between the amount of exculpatory evidence sufficient to thwart finality and the amount of exculpatory evidence sufficient to persuade a federal court to forgive a prisoner's procedural mistakes and adjudicate the merits of his or her constitutional claims. Professor Pettys concludes by arguing that Congress is harmfully widening that gap even further.

Keywords: habeas, finality, innocence, coleman, default

JEL Classification: K14, K49

Suggested Citation

Pettys, Todd E., Killing Roger Coleman: Habeas, Finality, and the Innocence Gap. William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 48, p. 2313, 2007, U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-28, Available at SSRN:

Todd E. Pettys (Contact Author)

University of Iowa - College of Law ( email )

Melrose and Byington
Iowa City, IA 52242
United States
319-335-6814 (Phone)
319-335-9098 (Fax)

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