At the age of 22, Edgar Coker thinks it’s normal to go straight to work and then straight home every day to spend all of his free time hidden behind closed doors.
It’s a frame of reference the former North Stafford resident forged from living nearly one-third of his life with the undeserved label of rapist and having that information available to all via Virginia’s online Sex Offender Registry.
Coker’s perspective is one Nicole Pittman has seen repeatedly in studying how children and teens are impacted by being listed on sex offender registries across the country. Pittman, a national expert on the topic, authored the 2013 Human Rights Watch report “Raised on the Registry: The irreparable harm of placing children on sex offender registries in the U.S.”
Juveniles on sex offender registries must continually re-register, are limited in where they can go and are publicly ostracized, all of which create a sense of imprisonment, Pittman said.
“It’s almost an institutionalized feeling,” she said.
Like a prison without walls.
It took a team of attorneys five years of legal battles to correct the injustice that began in June 2007 when a 14-year-old girl told her mother that Coker raped her inside their Aquia Harbour home.
After he was sentenced, the girl admitted she lied to avoid getting in trouble for having sex with her friend.
The legal team’s efforts resulted in a Feb. 10 ruling by Judge Designate Jane Marum Roush, who vacated Coker’s convictions and ordered his name removed from the state’s Sex Offender Registry.
But nothing can erase the 19 months he was confined in juvenile detention, or the nearly seven years he and his family have endured harassment and the fear of making some misstep that leads to additional charges.
And while they celebrate the legal victory, neither Pittman nor Coker’s team expect he will ever recover from being labeled a rapist.
“That damage has been done,” Pittman said. “It’s sort of a lifelong sentence that will be with him.”
A ‘HAPPY-GO-LUCKY’ CHILD
Growing up in a household with five siblings, Edgar Coker was outgoing and “a little jokester,” his mother, Cherri Dulaney, said during an interview shortly after his exoneration.
“He was just this little, happy-go-lucky child without a care in the world.”
At 15, the lanky 6-footer’s chief interest was playing basketball, something he often did with his younger brothers on the courts in their neighborhood. He even dreamed of playing internationally, an idea spurred by a youth coach’s suggestion he might have that level of skill.
The Brooke Point High School student had never been in trouble with the law before, and at 15 didn’t even know what it meant to be a rapist.
But that soon changed.
On June 7, 2007, three days after his neighbor accused him of rape, he was charged with that plus abduction and breaking and entering. He soon was locked up in the Rappahannock Juvenile Center in Stafford.
Eleven weeks later, to avoid being prosecuted as an adult and the chance of ending up in an adult prison, he followed his court-appointed attorney’s advice and pleaded guilty to rape and breaking-and-entering charges.
Then, on Sept. 19, 2007, after no witnesses were called on Coker’s behalf, he was ordered to register for life as a sex offender.
Juvenile court judges can consider seven factors in deciding whether registry is appropriate, but Stafford-based attorney Denise Rafferty offered none, Roush said in her ruling. However, Rafferty said in a 2009 letter defending her work that she argued that Coker had strong family support and no previous record.
Other factors a judge may consider include the relationship between the accused and the alleged victim, and their respective ages and maturity.
Coker and his accuser were a year apart in age and both are intellectually challenged.
The accuser, who was classified as “borderline mentally retarded,” also had a reputation for making false accusations, something her teachers and counselors knew, but never came up as the case sped through juvenile court, leaving Coker to face an indeterminate term confined within the Department of Juvenile Justice.
‘YOU QUICKLY ADAPT’
The soft-spoken Coker feared for his safety when he was placed in the local juvenile facility. He was afraid of the other teens, of fighting, and didn’t have a clue what was happening in the legal system.
The problems were compounded by his intellectual challenges. He was classified as in the “borderline range of functioning” and had an inability to properly interpret nuanced situations, leaving him vulnerable in social situations.
After his final hearing in juvenile court, Coker, who had never lived apart from his large family, was sent to Hanover County to serve out his time in a Department of Juvenile Justice facility.
He faced a new set of unknowns and weekend-only visits from family.
Dealing with loneliness and new fears, he said his goal was to keep his time there to a minimum.
“I just didn’t want no problems,” he said. “I didn’t want my time to be longer than it had to be.”
But each day was hard.
“I couldn’t see my family when I wanted to see them. I couldn’t wake up when I wanted. I couldn’t use the bathroom when I wanted. I couldn’t talk to my parents when I wanted,” he said.
“That’s when you adapt to it, quickly adapt.”
He was held for 19 months before getting released to his parents on Feb. 25, 2009.
CRYING IN THE CLOSET
Edgar Coker’s name was on the state Sex Offender Registry when he enrolled at Orange County High School in 2009.
Classmates knew it and a few asked him about it, he said. But when they went home and looked it up online they found news articles that told of his accuser’s recantation in November 2007 and of efforts underway by her mother and his attorneys to clear his name.
Because of that, it wasn’t too bad for him, he said.
“That’s his perspective,” Cherri Dulaney immediately added after patiently listening to her son.
“High school students were different. The adults—that’s when there was the backlash. We tried to shelter [our sons] from that.”
Dulaney said the reactions started days after the alleged rape. She first heard them while in a grocery store off Garrisonville Road in Stafford and they only got worse.
The family moved seven times in less than seven years because of the reactions.
They lived in the Locust Grove section of Orange County when Coker was released. And while there, someone posted a note on their door that read: “A rapist lives here.”
Later, a neighbor there accused one of Coker’s brothers of attacking his daughter. They gradually acknowledged it was untrue and charges were never brought, but the episode forced the family to live its worst fears.
They lived in two different townhouses in Locust Grove before moving to Unionville and later to Mineral in Louisa County.
They were living in a home off State Route 20 in Unionville on a long gravel drive bordered by woods when a stranger drove in.
“When he pulled up, my husband said, ‘Go back in the house,’” Dulaney said.
The man said he just wanted to check things out after learning someone on the registry lived there.
Another time, she called police when a dark blue pickup was parked on the property behind a row of trees.
“It terrified me because I’m home alone, they’re in school and [my husband’s] at work,” she said.
Dulaney said people asked why they chose to live there and one woman even asked them to leave.
But it didn’t take confrontations to keep the family on edge. Dulaney became hyper-vigilant in effort to protect all of her boys.
“I said, ‘You’re not taking another one.’ So when Edgar lost his childhood, the others did too,” she said.
None of them stayed overnight with friends anymore because she wouldn’t risk any accusations.
The family used to go on outings to parks or out to eat, but their concerns about adhering to registry requirements left Edgar and Dulaney feeling like there was no place for their family to go.
“So, we quit going anywhere,” she said.
People on Virginia’s Sex Offender Registry face a host of requirements that, if violated, mean a felony and prison time.
“The maze of regulations is difficult enough to understand as an attorney,” said Angela Ciolfi, legal director of JustChildren and a member of Coker’s team. “It must be that much harder to comply with it knowing the potential of jail time hangs in the balance of your understanding of the rules.”
Sex offenders are subject to ongoing re-registration requirements each time they move, change jobs or change Internet addresses or online identities. If they want to leave the state, they are subject to the requirements of the state they’re visiting.
In addition, it’s a felony for an adult sex offender to “loiter” within 100 feet of a school or day care. And adults convicted after July 1, 2008, can’t go within 100 feet of a locality’s playgrounds, athletic fields, facilities or gyms.
Legal experts say Coker was in those categories even though he was convicted as a juvenile.
That’s why he sat in the car when the family went grocery shopping and why his parents decided to forego attending his younger brothers’ football and basketball games.
If Edgar couldn’t go, no one would go, his parents decided.
“We helped one, but were hurting another one,” Dulaney said. Family is her life and the stress was almost overwhelming.
At her worst, while her son was locked up, she would steel herself in front of the other children but let her emotions flood out in private.
“Countless nights, I went in my walk-in closet, had 30 to 40 minutes of crying, then I’d put my face on again,” she said.
USING LESSONS LEARNED
Edgar Coker spent five years on the Sex Offender Registry after his release from juvenile detention.
Throughout that time, his mother wouldn’t let him run errands alone or take any chances.
Even when he decided to move out of the family home in January, she would relentlessly text-message him.
“I would check if he was OK and where he was, in which vicinity, just in case I needed to head that way,” she said.
And for good reason.
She dropped him off at an Orange County High School football game in the fall of 2011 with two of his brothers. But before he made it through the gate, an Orange County deputy who knew him from when he attended the school stopped him, asked his registry status and then handcuffed him.
He was placed in a holding cell with two other men.
But Coker said he knew how to handle it from his time in juvenile facilities.
One man was on the bottom bunk and another man was on the top bunk.
“I said, ‘I already know how this works,’ so I sat on the other side,” he recalled. “If you go in there casually, with no attitude, people won’t mess with you. If you go in there with a tough-guy act, that’s when people will try you.”
That night only served to reinforce Cherri Dulaney’s fears and her awareness of the ever-present risks resulting from the false rape claim.
“Life as we knew it stopped as soon as they took him,” she said.
‘I JUST STICK TO MYSELF’
Three weeks ago, within days of a judge’s order, Virginia State Police removed Edgar Coker’s name from the Sex Offender Registry.
Though he is no longer subject to the array of restrictions that come with Virginia’s registry and others, that doesn’t mean the effects suddenly disappear.
As his attorneys recently learned, private companies gather data from the registries and create their own lists, meaning the information—though not accurate or up-to-date—remains accessible.
And that means the shame and suspicions can continue indefinitely, and that’s when Pittman found that the most severe damage can occur.
Over a 16-month period, Pittman investigated 517 cases across 20 states of youths who committed sex offenses. She interviewed 281 of the offenders, plus parents, victims, police, attorneys and judges to produce her 111-page report, “Raised on the Registry.”
What Pittman found was the impact of public registration never ends—even when someone’s name is removed or he’s innocent.
It wasn’t until after removal that some committed suicide.
“It came when the realization sinks in that things aren’t going to change,” she said.
That’s why she says the days and months ahead will be significant for Coker and why she feels it’s important for him to have support.
She wishes Virginia offered ways to help him gain his footing and hope for a future such as an internship program to help him learn job skills.
She also said it’s important to realize not everyone will respect Circuit Judge Roush’s exoneration ruling.
“There are still people that believe Edgar is guilty no matter what the law says. There are very vigilant people and I think Edgar is going to be dealing with that for a while,” Pittman said.
Coker’s legal team also sees the impact lingering.
“Moving forward in a normal way isn’t going to happen,” said Deirdre Enright, director of investigations for the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia’s law school.
“He can’t believe this is a safe world, and no one in their right mind would tell him it is after what he’s been through,” she said.
That applies to his parents and siblings as well.
Attorneys and law students with the Innocence Project at UVa., the law school’s Child Advocacy Clinic and JustChildren/Legal Aid of Charlottesville started working in January 2009 to clear Coker’s name.
The case went all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court before he was granted a full hearing on the case. That hearing took place last July and it was his claim of ineffective assistance of counsel that resulted in the case being overturned last month.
Matthew Engle, the Innocence Project’s legal director, shared Enright’s view.
“Once you’ve seen how fallible the system can be, it’s a really frightening thing,” he said.
Cherri Dulaney admitted the experience over the past six years and eight months has shaken her view of law enforcement.
“I have a different view of the system now. I wonder now if things are real, true,” she said.
But Dulaney’s thoughts are focused on the practical not the philosophical.
“I have other children to be concerned about. Do I want normal? Yes,” she said, but added, “It’s going to be difficult, if not impossible.”
And, as she pondered that, she looked at her oldest son and took note of the changes that have taken hold over the past several years.
“He’s reserved. He’s quiet. He doesn’t really do a whole lot, things you would expect,” she said. “He’s careful, very careful, whether he realizes it or not.”
Coker is quick to shake his head and then say, “No,” when asked whether he’ll ever get over the accusations.
But he thinks he has things figured out, and said he doesn’t fear being falsely accused again.
“No,” he said matter-of-factly, “I just stick to myself. I don’t even go out. I just work.”
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972, firstname.lastname@example.org
REGISTRY ISN’T AUTOMATIC FOR TEENS
According to Virginia law, a juvenile judged delinquent—the equivalent of guilty in adult court—is not automatically required to register as a sex offender.
However, if they are 13 or older at the time of the offense, a judge can consider it if the local prosecutor makes a motion to request it.
In making the determination, judges are to consider all of the following factors relevant to the case:
- whether the act was committed with the use of force, threat or intimidation;
- the age and maturity of the complaining witness;
- the age and maturity of the offender;
- the difference in the ages of the complaining witness and the offender;
- the nature of the relationship between the complaining witness and the offender;
- the offender’s prior criminal history;
- and other aggravating or mitigating factors relevant to the case.
LEGAL HURDLES LEADING UP TO REMOVAL OF COKER’S NAME FROM THE SEX OFFENDER REGISTRY
JUNE 4, 2007—Encounter between girl, 14, and Edgar Coker, 15, at her Aquia Harbour home.
JUNE 7, 2007—Coker is charged with rape, abduction, and breaking and entering with the intent to commit rape.
JUNE 18, 2007—Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office notifies Coker’s parents of its intent to prosecute him as an adult.
JUNE 28, 2007—Defense attorney Denise Rafferty of Stafford is assigned to Coker’s case.
AUG. 22, 2007—Coker pleads guilty to rape and breaking-and-entering charges in exchange for having the abduction charge dropped and keeping the case in juvenile court.
AUG. 30, 2007—Initial hearing in juvenile court on requiring Coker to register as a sex offender.
SEPT. 19, 2007—Juvenile court judge orders Coker committed to the Department of Juvenile Justice for an indeterminate and lifetime registry as a sex offender.
NOV. 19, 2007—Coker’s commitment is finalized.
NOV. 23, 2007—Girl tells her mother she made up the rape allegation to avoid getting into trouble. Her mother then begins trying to rectify the situation.
FEB. 28, 2008—Coker asks the juvenile court to have his verdict set aside because of the recantation.
MARCH 19, 2008—Rafferty, the girl and her mother appear in juvenile court on motion to set aside his verdict. Judge denies it, saying it was untimely.
JULY 23, 2008—Juvenile court judge denies motion of retained attorney Joseph Brown to find error in fact in Coker’s case due to the recantation.
SEPT. 19, 2008—Stafford circuit judge denies Brown’s appeal of the juvenile court ruling, saying he does not have jurisdiction.
JANUARY 2009—The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia law school starts working to clear Coker’s name.
JAN. 22, 2009—Innocence Project Director Deirdre Enright and JustChildren Legal Director Andrew K. Block Jr. send letter to the Department of Juvenile Justice asking for Coker’s release.
FEB. 25, 2009—Coker is released from a Department of Juvenile Justice facility and placed on probation. He must register with Virginia State Police for the Sex Offender Registry within three days.
AUG. 18, 2009—Coker’s legal team files petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Stafford Circuit Court.
DEC. 18, 2010—Stafford Circuit Judge Charles Sharp dismisses Coker’s petition, ruling he has no jurisdiction since Coker is no longer in custody.
MARCH 2, 2012—Virginia Supreme Court overturns Judge Sharp’s ruling and remands the case to Stafford Circuit Court.
AUG. 29, 2012—Fairfax Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush is designated as presiding judge after all Stafford Circuit judges recuse themselves.
FEB. 25, 2013—Judge Roush agrees to hear Coker’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus and schedules a two-day -hearing to address whether Rafferty violated Coker’s right to effective counsel.
JULY 16–17, 2013—Roush holds hearing in Stafford Circuit Court.
FEB. 10, 2014—Roush grants Coker’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus, ruling that Rafferty provided ineffective counsel. Roush vacates Coker’s convictions, orders his name removed from the Virginia Sex Offender Registry and gives both sides 21 days to file written objections to the ruling. She gives Stafford County’s commonwealth’s attorney 60 days to decide whether to retry Coker.
MARCH 3, 2014—Deadline for attorneys to file any response to Roush’s ruling.
APRIL 11, 2014—Deadline for Stafford prosecutor to decide whether to retry Coker.
Edgar Coker’s family struggled to understand and keep up with the requirements of the Virginia Sex Offender Registry.
Here are the regulations outlined by the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry Act:
His initial registration with the Virginia State Police was required upon conviction. He then had to re-register within three days of his release from the juvenile correction facility in Hanover County. As part of the registration, he had to be photographed and provide a sample of blood, saliva, or tissue for DNA analysis and submission to the DNA databank.
He also had to provide email address information; any instant message, chat or other Internet communication name or identity he used or intended to use; have his fingerprints and palm prints taken; provide information regarding his place of employment; provide registration for any vehicle had he owned one.
Registration information includes: name, all aliases—including his childhood nicknames—date and locality of the conviction, fingerprints, photo, date of birth, Social Security Number, physical and mailing address, and description of the offenses for which he was convicted.
The online registry also includes a field indicating whether the crime was violent. In Coker’s case, he was listed as a violent offender. It also shows his victim as a minor but doesn’t indicate that he was also a minor.
He also was required to re-register with local law enforcement:
- within three days any time he moved within the state;
- within three days any time he switched his place of employment;
- within three days any time he changed the status of any vehicle;
- within 30 minutes of any change of email address or identity information for instant messaging, chatting or other Internet communication.
In addition, he was required to re-register with state police every 90 days from the initial registration.
He also was required to be photographed in color every two years by local law enforcement for relay to state police.
Had he enrolled in post-secondary education or training or gotten a job at an institution of higher learning, he would have had to indicate that on his registration and then notify the institution’s law enforcement or local police within three days if his status changed.
FAILING TO COMPLY
Any person convicted of a sexually violent offense who knowingly fails to register or re-register, or knowingly provides materially false information to the Sex Offender and Crimes Against Minors Registry is guilty of a Class 6 felony. A second or subsequent conviction for an offense under this subsection is a Class 5 felony.