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Justice Road
Will justice come for Edgar Coker?

Date published: 7/21/2013

LADY JUSTICE'S blindfold, as we pointed out in an editorial last week ("Exonerated," July 16), represents impartiality in judicial matters. It should not indicate that Justice is blind to, well, justice. Which brings us to the case of Edgar Coker.

Mr. Coker was just 15 years old when he was accused of rape, abduction, and breaking and entering. In 2007, his Aquia Harbour neighbor, Michele Sousa, had returned home from work to find him leaving her house and her 14-year-old daughter pulling on her clothes. Ms. Sousa reported a sexual assault; Mr. Coker was arrested.

Mr. Coker maintained his innocence, saying the sex was consensual. There was plenty of evidence to back his story, if only his defense attorney had sought it out. A school guidance counselor whom the prosecution planned to call could have testified that the girl, a special education student, fully understood sexual matters and was capable of standing up to authorities and people bigger than herself. What's more, the girl was known to have made false statements in the past. The interview with the detective, during which Mr. Coker stated his innocence, was also available.

Leaving those stones unturned, defense attorney Denise Rafferty advised Mr. Coker to plead guilty to rape and breaking and entering to avoid being tried in adult court, which Prosecutor Eric Olsen had threatened. Mr. Coker followed that advice, and went off to juvenile detention. Justice, it seems, had taken a time out.

Two months later, the girl told her mother that she had made up the rape story to avoid getting into trouble. Ms. Sousa, to her credit, has been seeking to set matters right ever since. To a lay person, it seems like that shouldn't be that hard. Edgar Coker was a kid, wrongfully accused, who pled guilty because he was scared.

But the law travels a twisty road at times, full of forks and dead ends, setbacks and detours. And that has been Mr. Coker's lot. Now represented by several justice advocacy groups including the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia Law School, his case has traveled all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court. It is now back in Stafford, where last week, Judge Jane Marum Roush from Fairfax heard arguments largely centering on this question: Was Mr. Coker's constitutional right to effective counsel abridged?

Ms. Rafferty's failure to access key records characterized a defense deficient enough that a juvenile defense expert, William Reichardt, last week testified that it "fell well below the performance standards" outlined in the state's Standards of Practice for Indigent Defense Counsel. Ms. Rafferty maintains her focus was on keeping Mr. Coker out of adult jail. But should that have been all there was to his defense?

Today, at age 22, Mr. Coker still bears the scarlet "S" of a sex offender, a label that has prompted harassment from others and has driven him and his family out of some neighborhoods. Lady Justice, blindfolded, is stumbling about groping for a resolution of his case. To the rest of us, the way forward seems pretty straight.