cover image May God Have Mercy: A True Story of Crime and Punishment

May God Have Mercy: A True Story of Crime and Punishment

John C. Tucker. W. W. Norton & Company, $27.5 (358pp) ISBN 978-0-393-04032-6

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.)