Monday, February 17, 2014

Seven years in prison for a rape lie

Story here.

Seven years after being falsely convicted of rape, Edgar Coker Jr., 22, of Mineral, said he’s ready to move on.

“To hear that you’re finally free, it’s like a reality check,” Coker said Monday afternoon in an interview at the University of Virginia School of Law. “I got so used to not going to certain places, and now I’m able to just live my life.”

A Fairfax County circuit judge vacated his sentence last week, and his name was taken off the sex offender list. It was the end of an ordeal that began in 2007 when Coker, then 15, pleaded guilty to raping a 14-year-old girl. He took a plea deal on the advice of his attorney because he faced a potentially long prison sentence in an adult facility.

The girl recanted her accusation just two months later, admitting she had lied. Coker’s legal team — attorneys with the Child Advocacy Clinic and the Innocence Project Clinic at UVa’s School of Law, as well as Legal Aid Justice Center and the McGuire Woods law firm — secured Coker’s early release from juvenile prison, which took 15 additional months. Despite Coker’s release, his name remained on the sex offender registry.

Coker said most of his classmates understood the situation and treated him well. But the long list of restrictions on sex offenders often kept him from socializing outside of school. He usually stayed at home, he said, while friends went out.

“I was just cautious, watching my every move,” he said, “not trying to do nothing.”

There were some missteps. Attending a high school football game in 2011 at his alma mater led to his arrest due to his lingering status. His family moved several times when neighbors found him on the registry and harassment began.

A note left at their house said a rapist lived inside. There was at least one death threat online.

Dierdre Enright, director of the Innocence Project Clinic, believed clearing Coker’s name — overturning the conviction and getting his name removed from the sex offender list — would be fairly easy. But a procedural obstacle forced a legal battle that went all the way up to the state Supreme Court.

“Getting him released was the easy part,” Enright said. “The tough thing was getting him vindicated.”

Coker’s lawyers filed for a writ of habeas corpus — a petition for release from mandatory detention — while he was on parole, but the suit was dismissed by a Stafford County judge on the grounds that Coker was not being detained.

Coker’s attorneys appealed to the state Supreme Court, where they argued that parole is a form of detention, which makes the habeas petition valid. In 2012, the court ruled in Coker’s favor, opening the door for a lawsuit against the state Department of Juvenile Justice that could clear his name.

“We had hope that something would happen, at some point,” she said. “We just didn’t know when and if it was going to happen.”
Enright said Coker’s case shows why threatening juveniles with adult prison can be problematic. Fear of the danger he faced in the adult system was enough to make him plead guilty in a weak case — Coker’s accuser, she said, has a history of false accusations.

Then there was the long battle over a procedural roadblock.

“There’s people who will say about this — ‘the system worked,’” Enright said. “That is the most empty response you can have to this situation.”

Coker said he wished police and prosecutors had been more thorough with their investigation.

“I just think on serious cases, they should really look into it … before they throw someone’s life away,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.