What Really Happened in the Trinity Commons Parking Lot?
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When the time came for the defense to put its own case before the jury, Coleman’s attorneys called only five witnesses. The first and third of these — a 911 operator and an auto mechanic, respectively — testified only briefly, verifying in turn that Coleman had attempted to call for help and that the damage Schwerin had done to the Hummer had evidently been performed “aggressively.” (Schwerin had partially disassembled the covering of one of the vehicle’s fog lights.)
The defense’s second witness, a bald, mustached crime scene investigator named Marlon Wright, provided testimony of far greater potential value, but here, too, the prosecution was able to counter the defense’s claims. According to Wright, an inventory of the scene had revealed a single shell casing, located “generally in the same area” in which Schwerin had fallen. (A shell casing discharges from the gun itself when a shot is fired, theoretically allowing investigators to draw conclusions about the relative location of the shooter.) The defense’s interpretation of this finding, implied by Ballin on direct examination and further emphasized by Farese during closing arguments, was that the casing’s proximity to the spot of Schwerin’s death proved Coleman’s assertion that Schwerin had charged him just before the shooting — that the two men had, as a matter of science, been closer to one another than the 10 feet suggested by the prosecution’s witnesses.
Yet a shell casing, as Hagerman pointed out on cross examination, is easily kicked aside, particularly in a crime scene as crowded as Coleman’s. “There’s no science about what happens to a shell casing once it hits the ground,” Hagerman told the jury.
The defense’s final witnesses were Katheryn and Ray Coleman, and, not surprisingly, the story that emerged from their testimonies differed markedly from the one put forth by the state’s attorneys. Katheryn, whose credibility had been severely undermined during the prosecution’s case, nevertheless attempted to provide a counterbalance to Hagerman and Christensen’s assertion that she had helped instigate the tragedy.
“Did you ever tell Mr. Schwerin that he couldn’t leave?” Farese asked her.
“Did you ever block his vehicle from leaving?”
Responding to the rest of the prosecution’s claims, Katheryn was equally resolute. At no point, she insisted, had she accosted Schwerin or used profanity. Neither had she expressed the hope, related by Officer Jensen in the trial’s most inflammatory testimony, that the shooting would be fatal, an assertion that she characterized on cross examination as “the biggest story I’ve ever heard.” Asked, as almost every previous witness had been, to describe Schwerin’s demeanor, Katheryn, who, at 5’4”, would have had to tilt her head considerably just to meet Schwerin’s eyes, stressed both his size (“He was like an ex-NFL player with a beer gut”) and his anger (“He was rocking back and forth like he was about to explode, like a tea kettle”). Not only had Schwerin charged her husband, Katheryn asserted, he had knocked her down in the process. “When the shot was fired, I was on the ground.”
Coleman, taking the stand in his own defense, attempted similar work, describing Schwerin as an intimidator who had revealed from his opening remark — “Are you the pimpy son of a bitch in this big car?” — a willingness to bully. Like Katheryn, Coleman stressed Schwerin’s actions immediately before the shooting. “He came charging me,” Coleman told the jury. “He’d already hurt my wife, and he was coming to do what he said, and that’s try to kill us.”
That the defense’s strategy ultimately failed seems due in large part to the fact that Coleman’s attorneys were unable to offer independent verification of this claim. Yet Leslie Ballin, to whom I spoke earlier this year, points to a second factor when assessing the trial’s outcome: Katheryn Coleman. In the Mary Winkler case, the jury was clearly moved by the defendant’s tearful demeanor during her testimony. (Appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show after the Winkler verdict, Steve Farese confessed as much: “Like my father always taught me, it’s not what you say but how you say it. I think that’s what got a hold of these jurors.”) Katheryn, by contrast, appeared “testy” on the stand, as Coleman later told me, responding with particular indignation to Hagerman’s questions on cross examination. Ballin makes this point even more bluntly: “Katheryn came across badly.”
Whatever the reason, and despite the trials’ similarity (both defendants claimed to have killed with justification), the defense team seemed largely unable, in Coleman’s case, to create a narrative as compelling as the one fashioned for (and by) Winkler. As a result, the prosecution’s account of the tragedy — that Coleman shot Schwerin to complete his domination of a larger man — is the one that stuck.
Closing his case before the jury, Hagerman leaned again on this premise: “[Coleman] killed a man in front of his children. You’re the judges in this courtroom. You bring justice to what happened out there. . . . Prove to him that he didn’t make himself the bigger man that night. Prove to him that he committed murder.”
Later that evening, the jury found Coleman guilty of the highest count on the indictment: second-degree murder.
In late December 2011, I drove to the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning, Tennessee, to meet Ray Coleman. WTSP is a sprawling, 2,500-inmate campus built in the pod system ubiquitous among modern correctional facilities. Located 50 miles northeast of Memphis, it sits on a parcel of land just off Highway 87, a meandering, two-lane strip of road that dead-ends at the Mississippi shortly after passing the prison. A sign noting the lack of ferry access greets travelers as they turn onto the highway.
Though prison officials received me, on this and subsequent visits, with the same mixture of courtesy and wariness that ultimately informed my every interaction with the Tennessee Department of Corrections, my time at WTSP nevertheless reinforced my idea of maximum-security facilities as occupying a space at once dystopian and absurd. The standard, oppressive details would have been familiar to anyone with a television: great coils of razor wire perched atop fences; video surveillance in every corner. Yet occasional touches seemed intentionally satirical, almost playful. On my second trip to the prison, a guard leading me through a maze of corridors paused en route to file his retirement papers. (“It’s just not what it used to be,” he told me.) Another officer, manning a desk just inside the administrative building, invited me to examine the framed photographs of 22 previous wardens, a roster stretching back to the 1930s. In one picture, a gentleman with thinning brown hair and plastic frames set low on his nose poses with a litter of puppies.
Coleman, whose protruding belly and deep Southern drawl bring to mind a character in a Flannery O’Connor story, is intensely aware of this dynamic. “Prison would be a joke,” he wrote to me early in our correspondence, “except that it’s real live humans in here.” Despite the relative pleasantness of his circumstances — Coleman resides in an “honor” pod designed to house inmates who have shown a willingness to abide by prison rules — he remains a figure deeply unsettled by his sense that an injustice has been done. “I hadn’t even had a speeding ticket,” he told me on more than one occasion. “But when you bring the police department to bear on you, plus the district attorney to bear on you, with all their resources, your everyday guy is sunk.”
Coleman’s newfound contempt for the criminal justice system is surely rooted, at least in part, in the popularity he enjoyed as a businessman and investor. Because his real estate dealings took him all over the South (“I always believed in chasing a lot of rabbits”), Coleman developed a wide and varied circle of acquaintance. Earlier this year, he sent me a parcel containing copies of the 157 letters of support sent by friends and family to Judge Fowlkes in the period between his conviction and sentencing. In one of these, the writer, a retired FBI agent in Augusta, Arkansas, describes Coleman as having led “an exemplary life with no tarnishes present” and outlines several of Coleman’s many charitable activities. (A notable example shows Coleman arranging for clothes and money to be brought to a newly released fellow inmate.) Another letter recounts Coleman’s intervention in the near-drowning of a 9-year-old child. Yet another, composed by a former academic who performed the environmental assessment for a number of Coleman’s land deals, makes repeated reference to Coleman’s honesty and collectedness (and, helpfully, includes its author’s curriculum vitae). In her own letter to Judge Fowlkes, Katheryn Coleman recalls an instance, in the mid-Nineties, in which her husband was recognized by the FBI for helping to thwart a bank robbery. Coleman chased down the getaway car.
Taken together, these pleas for leniency paint a compelling portrait, and certainly one more complicated than the brutish sketch of Coleman offered at trial. Yet, counter-intuitively, they may have done his cause more harm than good. Rejecting a late-breaking claim by Coleman’s attorneys that their client’s state of mind was impacted by a previously undiagnosed bipolar disorder, Fowlkes sentenced Coleman to a term of 18 years without the possibility of early release. The notes he had received on Coleman’s behalf, Fowlkes suggested, portrayed the defendant as “a person who is calm, cool, [who] never does anything violent, doesn’t lose his temper, is gentle and caring” — a set of characterizations that seemed to belie the psychiatric testimony offered by the defense. “There is a major inconsistency,” Fowlkes pointed out, between the letters and the testimony, offered prior to sentencing, that Coleman suffered from “paranoid psychosis.” Fowlkes went on: “I think the thing that controlled his mental condition was the weapon.”