Virginia Governor Mark Warner ordered DNA evidence retested to determine whether a man executed in 1992 for rape and murder was innocent.
If the testing shows Roger Keith Coleman did not rape and kill his sister-in-law in 1981, it would be the first time in the US a person has been exonerated by scientific testing after his execution, according to death penalty opponents.
Warner said on Thursday that he ordered the tests because of technological advances that could provide a level of forensic certainty not available in the 1980s.
"This is an extraordinarily unique circumstance, where technology has advanced significantly and can be applied in the case of someone who consistently maintained his innocence until execution," said Warner, a Democrat who leaves office Jan. 14.
"I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence," Warner said.
A former prosecutor in the case did not object to the tests and said he was confident they would confirm Coleman's guilt.
Coleman was convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 for the murder of 19-year-old Wanda McCoy, his wife's sister, who was found raped, stabbed and nearly beheaded in her home in the coal mining town of Grundy.
The case drew international attention as the well-spoken Coleman pleaded his case on talk shows and in magazines and newspapers. Time magazine featured the coal miner on its cover. Pope John Paul II tried to block the execution. Then-governor Lawrence Wilder's office was flooded with thousands of calls and letters of protest from around the world.
Warner, who is considering a presidential bid in 2008, has heard requests throughout his term from death penalty opposition groups who wanted the evidence retested.
"This is a proper action for the governor to take. It's not right to shy away from a difficult question or even shy away from reopening cases when there is a chance that something new might be learned," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center.
Coleman's attorneys argued that he did not have time to commit the crime, that tests showed semen from two men was found and that another man bragged about murdering her. Coleman was executed on May 20, 1992.
"An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight," the 33-year-old said moments before he was electrocuted. "When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty."