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Surfing the Internet with special purpose

CHARLOTTESVILLE—Edgar Coker has spent a lot of time on the Internet over the last week.

So has his mother.

They’ve checked again and again to be sure what they heard is true, to make sure it hasn’t changed.

On Feb. 10, Circuit Judge Jane Marum Roush filed an order in Stafford Circuit Court exonerating Coker of rape and ordering his name removed from the Virginia Sex Offender Registry.

One week later, in his first media interview, Coker talked about his reaction to the news he’s been waiting nearly seven years to hear.

Coker, 22, said he was asleep at his apartment in Orange County when his attorneys started trying to reach him last week. When he called back, their message was initially too much to absorb.

“I was overwhelmed at first. I had to let it settle in,” he said. “I said, ‘Call me back tomorrow.’”

The next day, he went to work at Country Cookin’ in Orange and kept thinking about it.

“While I was cooking macaroni and mashing potatoes, I was thinking, I’m off the list.”

Then, to be sure, he went online to read news of the order himself.

“I had to check Google a couple times. I’m really off the list. That’s when it really settled in,” he said.

Coker was 15 years old in June 2007 when he was accused of raping a 14-year-old neighbor in Aquia Harbour in Stafford County.

Within days, he was charged with rape, abduction and breaking and entering with intent to rape.

Within months, after taking a plea agreement, he was serving an indeterminate term at a Hanover County facility of the Department of Juvenile Justice and under an order to be listed on the state’s Sex Offender Registry for life.

In November 2007, his accuser recanted her rape claim. She told her mother that she made up the accusation to avoid getting into trouble.

She admitted the two were friends, that she had invited him into the house and that the sex was consensual.

The girl’s mother contacted an attorney and immediately began looking for ways to rectify the injustice.

But that didn’t come until the ruling by Roush, a Fairfax County judge appointed to hear a civil suit filed by a team of attorneys working on Coker’s behalf.

Since January 2009, attorneys with the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia Law School, the law school’s Child Advocacy Clinic and JustChildren/Legal Aid of Charlottesville have been working to clear Coker’s name.

He finally got a full hearing on his case last July. Roush’s ruling resulted from that two-day hearing. Presiding after Stafford’s circuit judges recused themselves, Roush vacated Coker’s convictions after finding that his court-appointed attorney, Denise Rafferty of Stafford, violated his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel.

Despite maintaining his innocence, Coker pleaded guilty in 2007 to the rape and breaking-and-entering charges on Rafferty’s advice to avoid the risk of being tried as an adult and sentenced to an adult prison.

His parents, Edgar and Cherri Dulaney, knew their son could not survive in that environment.

Edgar Coker, who had spent some of his schooling in special education, had “limited cognitive understanding” and a “limited ability to think through nuanced situations,” an expert testified in his July court hearing.

On Monday, Cherri Dulaney spoke at length at the UVA Law School about what the family has endured since her oldest son was accused of rape, sent to Hanover and later released to live under the cloud of the Sex Offender Registry.

She spoke of the pain of not being able to protect him from the false accusation and conviction. And she shared that since then, she has been on constant guard to protect her three other sons from harm.

“You don’t want to lose another one,” Edgar interjected, completing the thought.

Deirdre Enright, the Innocence Project’s director of investigations, said she wasn’t surprised to hear Coker and Dulaney’s current outlook on the ruling.

“They’ve watched for seven years while people hid behind procedural hurdles so as not to address the merits of the recantation,” she said. “I think it’s going to take a long time before they fully believe it is real.”

Both Edgar Coker’s and Cherri Dulaney’s online actions prove that.

“I checked it 50 times,” Dulaney said after her son’s name was removed from the online registry last week.

“I check it once or twice daily just to make sure someone didn’t do something,” she added.

Coker is just as diligent.

He said he’s gone online to read the news stories and check the registry so many times that he “lost count.”

“I still look at it every night before I go to bed.”

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972