Judge orders former Stafford teen’s name removed from sex offender registry, vacates sentence
ONLINE EXTRA: Read the full ruling and order from Judge Jane Marum Roush.
BY PAMELA GOULD/THE FREE LANCE-STAR
Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush on Monday ordered former Stafford County teen Edgar Coker’s name removed from the state’s Sex Offender Registry and vacated the convictions that put him there.
The order resulted from Roush’s ruling that court-appointed attorney Denise Rafferty failed to provide effective assistance of counsel to Coker in 2007 as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
Since January 2009, a team of attorneys with the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia School of Law, the law school’s Child Advocacy Clinic and JustChildren/Legal Aid of Charlottesville has been working to clear Coker’s name.
Coker, who now lives in Orange County, was 15 in June 2007 when he was accused of breaking into a 14-year-old neighbor’s house in Aquia Harbour and raping her. She recanted her accusation after he had been convicted and sent to the state Department of Juvenile Justice for an indeterminate term.
The ruling was welcome news for Coker’s team but the case is not officially over.
Rafferty could not be reached for comment.
Roush gave Stafford Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Olsen 60 days to decide whether he wants to retry the case.
Olsen said Monday that he will consult with the lawyers in the Virginia Attorney General’s Office who handled the civil case about the ruling before deciding whether to retry Coker.
Olsen said he didn’t know when he would decide, but said it wouldn’t take 60 days.
Roush also gave Coker’s attorneys and the assistant attorneys general 21 days to file any objections to the ruling.
Assistant Attorney General Craig Stallard had no comment on Monday.
Coker, now 22, was charged with rape, abduction and breaking and entering related to the June 4, 2007, incident. On Rafferty’s advice, he pleaded guilty in Stafford juvenile court to the rape and break-in charges to avoid being prosecuted in adult court, which Olsen—then a deputy prosecutor—had threatened.
But two months after Coker was sent to the juvenile justice system, Michele Sousa said her daughter told her she had lied about being raped, to avoid getting into trouble. The girl said she and Coker were friends, she had invited him into the house and the sex was consensual.
After that, Sousa sought to rectify what she considered an injustice.
On Monday, she called it “fantastic” that the convictions had been thrown out and Coker’s name was to be removed from the registry.
“That’s just a miracle—long overdue, but that’s great,” Sousa said.
Roush is a Fairfax judge, but was appointed to preside over the civil case after Stafford judges recused themselves.
She concluded that “Rafferty’s representation of [Coker] fell below the wide range of professionally competent assistance.”
Roush listed six reasons for that decision in the 22-page ruling that accompanied Monday’s order:
Rafferty failed to discover the existence of a tape-recorded interview of Coker by the investigator and thus failed listen to it.
- She failed to discover the existence of a tape-recorded interview of the accuser and listen to it.
- She failed to investigate the accuser’s reputation for truthfulness.
- She failed to investigate the accuser’s ability to consent to sexual activity.
- She failed to investigate her client’s cognitive limitations.
- She failed to present additional exculpatory or mitigating evidence.
Both Coker and the accuser have limited intellectual abilities. She is classified as borderline mentally retarded. Coker is in the borderline range of functioning.
Olsen has said he was prosecuting the rape case on the grounds that the girl did not have the ability to consent to sexual intercourse, though Coker wasn’t charged under that section of the statute.
But her mother, teachers and counselors testified in the civil case in July that she had a full understanding of sexual intercourse, its consequences and terminology.
The teachers and counselors also testified that she had a reputation for dishonesty and for making false accusations.
In her ruling, Roush also faulted Rafferty’s claim that Coker confessed to her.
“The court does not believe Ms. Rafferty’s testimony that [Coker] made a ‘full confession’ to her,” Roush wrote.
Rafferty, whose practice is based in Stafford, testified in July that Coker made a detailed confession to her.
But Roush noted that not only did her version go beyond what the investigator had in his taped interview, it also wasn’t recorded in Rafferty’s files.
“The court finds it difficult to believe that [Coker] made a ‘full confession’ to Ms. Rafferty and she did not make a single note of such a significant event in her representation of him,” Roush wrote.
Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972
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