Saturday, February 15, 2014

Edgar Coker Jr.: Life Better for Young Man Exonerated in Rape Case

Life better for young man exonerated in rape case
By Pamela Gould              February 14, 2014

It wasn’t until Edgar Coker knew his name was off Virginia’s Sex Offender Registry that he exhibited any joy over this week’s court ruling exonerating him of raping a neighbor.

Before that, the 22-year-old had, at best, a muted reaction to Monday’s ruling by Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush ordering his rape and breaking-and-entering convictions vacated and his name removed from the online registry.

After nearly seven years of living with the label of rapist and violent sex offender, and more than five years of efforts from a team of attorneys seeking to right what his initial accusers considered an injustice, Coker was skeptical of the impact of the ruling.

But on Wednesday, when University of Virginia Law School Innocence Project Legal Director Matthew Engle spoke to Coker, he noticed a change.

“There was a sense of optimism that I’ve not heard in the four years I’ve been working with him,” Engle said.

“He really sees the sex offender registry as something that has been holding him back,” Engle said. “That was really the first time I’ve heard excitement in his voice and hope for the future now that this is finally done.”

Roush is assigned to Fairfax County’s circuit but presided in the case after Stafford County judges recused themselves.

On Monday, she filed an order in Stafford Circuit Court instructing the Virginia State Police to remove Coker’s name from the state’s Sex Offender Registry.

On Wednesday, it was gone.

The state police are responsible for maintaining the registry and update it daily, spokeswoman Corinne Geller said. They act once they receive the proper paperwork from the court, she said.

The ease with which that happened belies the effort it took to achieve the goal.

In June 2007, Coker was 15 and living with his family in Aquia Harbour in North Stafford when he was accused of breaking into a 14-year-old neighbor’s house and sexually assaulting her.

Three days later he was charged with rape, abduction and breaking and entering. And less than three months later, he pleaded guilty to two of the charges to avoid the risk of being tried as an adult—as then-Stafford deputy prosecutor Eric Olsen was threatening—and winding up in an adult prison.

Though Coker and his parents maintained his innocence, they couldn’t risk having the teenager who has been labeled by experts as in the borderline range of functioning and with “limited ability to think through nuanced situations,” subjected to the environment of adult prison.

About two months after he became a ward of Virginia’s Department of Juvenile Justice, Coker’s accuser told her mother she had lied about the rape accusation to keep herself out of trouble. She said he was a friend, she had invited him into the house and their sexual intercourse was voluntary.

The girl’s mother had returned home the evening of June 4, 2007, to find Coker leaving the house and her daughter in her bedroom getting dressed. She suspected a sexual assault and her daughter claimed it to a Stafford detective.

That started a chain of events it has taken 6 years to reverse.

Since January 2009, a team of attorneys with the Innocence Project, U.Va. Law School’s Child Advocacy Clinic and JustChildren/Legal Aid of Charlottesville has worked to clear Coker’s name.

“I was surprised and happy to see how quickly the system moved to remove him from the registry once the court order was issued,” said Angela Ciolfi, legal director of JustChildren and a member of Coker’s team. “I wish the system had moved faster to exonerate.”

But Roush’s ruling doesn’t officially end the case. She gave the state Attorney General’s office 21 days to object to anything in her order. She also gave Olsen, who is now Stafford’s chief prosecutor, 60 days to decide if he wants to retry Coker.

Olsen said earlier this week that he would decide after speaking with the assistant attorneys general who handled the case. Coker’s team succeeded in showing that court-appointed attorney Denise Rafferty of Stafford violated his constitutional right to effective representation of counsel.

But if this is the final chapter of the years-long legal effort, Ciolfi said it’s important to recognize that the personal toll on Coker and his family does not magically disappear with the ruling or the removal of his name from the registry.

“We’re so happy for the family that the ordeal appears to be coming to an end, but I still feel it’s worth bearing in mind that we can’t just hit the delete button and expect their lives to be the way they were before,” she said.