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In some states by law, in others by tradition, judges imposing a sentence of death complete the grim ritual with the words "May God have mercy on your soul."
In 1982, in Grundy, Virginia, a young miner named Roger Coleman was sentenced to death for the murder of his sister-in-law. Ten years later, the sentence was carried out, despite the extraordinary efforts of Kitty Behan, a brilliant and dedicated young lawyer who devoted two years of her life to gathering evidence of Coleman's innocence, evidence so compelling that media around the world came to question the verdict. The courts, ruling on technicalities, refused to hear the new evidence and witnesses. Finally, the governor of Virginia ordered a lie-detector test to be administered on the morning of Coleman's scheduled execution, and in a chair that to Coleman surely looked like nothing so much as an electric chair.
In John Tucker's telling, this story is an emotional and unforgettable roller-coaster ride from the awful night of the crime to the equally awful night of the execution. Perhaps it was not Roger Coleman whose soul was in need of God's mercy, but the judges, prosecutors, and politicians who procured his death.
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Tucker, an attorney turned writer, tells of the controversial 1992 execution of an accused murderer in Virginia.

With executions on the rise nationwide, the story of Ronald Keith Coleman, as told by attorney-turned-author Tucker, might serve as a cautionary tale to an increasingly vindictive public. In 1982, Coleman was convicted of the rape and murder of his sister-in-law, Wanda Fay Thompson, and sentenced to die in Virginia's electric chair. Despite other leads and possible suspects, the investigation focused on Coleman from the beginning, in part due to his previous rape conviction. His defense was handled by two inexperienced lawyers, neither of whom had tried a murder case. Unresolved inconsistencies in the prosecution's case‘how could Coleman have inflicted four-inch stab wounds with a three-inch knife?; why, if Coleman was freely admitted to the victim's home, were there pry marks on the door?‘and other problems created a climate of doubt that climaxed with a Time cover story that ran two days before Coleman's execution. Tucker paces his story with an eye to raising suspense as Coleman speeds through the appeals process and last-minute pleas. State policeman Jack Davidson, Virginia Appeals Court Judge Williams and U.S. Justice O'Connor come in for some shots, and the 11th-hour almost-heroes who worked tirelessly on Tucker's behalf are nearly canonized. What distinguishes Tucker's work is his sensitive rendering of the quality of the effort on Coleman's behalf and of the dignity with which Coleman, clearly a changed man, faced his death on May 20, 1992. Photos not seen by PW. (Sept.)

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