What really happened in the Trinity Commons parking lot?
illustrations by Tyler Hildebrand
(page 1 of 7)
On the evening of February 6, 2009, Harry R. Coleman Jr., a 59-year-old real estate investor, was drinking a glass of wine in the dining room of Villa Castrioti, an Italian restaurant in Cordova’s Trinity Commons shopping center, when his mother-in-law entered from the parking lot, obviously distraught. Coleman, who prefers to be called Ray, had spent the afternoon visiting a hospitalized friend in West Memphis, Arkansas, and had arranged to meet his wife, Katheryn, and her mother for dessert. As Coleman recalls, he had taken only a few sips of the wine when he was interrupted. Katheryn, who that evening was celebrating her fifty-second birthday, had become involved in an altercation outside the restaurant, according to her mother, and Coleman’s presence was required immediately.
Expecting nothing more serious than a fender-bender, Coleman left his table and made his way to the sidewalk separating the restaurant from the parking lot, leaving behind his day planner. What he saw there surprised him. To his right, at a distance perhaps the width of six parking spaces, a crowd had gathered in the vicinity of Coleman’s vehicle, a silver Hummer, and a second automobile, a similarly colored Yukon Denali parked directly beside it. Standing between the two vehicles was Katheryn, and in front of her on the sidewalk was a man who would later be identified as Robert Schwerin Jr., a 52-year-old mechanic employed by FedEx.
Katheryn would later testify in court that upon pulling into the parking lot she noticed Schwerin, who went by the nickname “Dutch,” kneeling in front of her husband’s Hummer, “pulling parts off the car and chunking them to the side.” According to statements offered by several witnesses, Katheryn confronted Schwerin, at one point going so far as to place her body behind the Denali — Schwerin’s vehicle — to prevent his leaving. Though the exact nature of the words exchanged by Katheryn and Schwerin remains a subject of debate, witnesses and participants alike agree that the key source of the controversy was the proximity of the automobiles to one another — though both were parked legally, the gap between them was too narrow to allow Schwerin access to his vehicle through the driver’s side door.
Making his way onto the scene, Coleman tried to ascertain what had happened. After conferring briefly with Katheryn, he approached Schwerin, and the two began a heated conversation. (One witness has since characterized the exchange as a barrage of “cussing and yelling back and forth.”) Katheryn soon joined the men on the sidewalk, and the atmosphere grew tenser yet. According to testimony offered later, Katheryn began to jab Schwerin’s chest with her fingers, and Schwerin responded by “trying to create space between the two of them,” pushing Katheryn aside, though not roughly enough to disrupt her balance.
It was at this moment, witnesses suggest, that the first explicit threat of violence was delivered. Seeing the interaction between Katheryn and Schwerin, Coleman reportedly told the latter, “If you touch my wife again, I’ll blow your fucking brains out.” Coleman, who denies both this remark and the characterization of his wife’s behavior, instead blames Schwerin for the introduction of violence, later testifying, “He told me he was going to kill me, my wife, and my dog.”
Whichever of these narratives is accurate, what happened next is beyond dispute. Moving into the parking lot and opening the rear passenger door of the Hummer in an attempt to shield himself, Coleman took his cell phone from its hip holster and dialed 911. Receiving no answer, he retrieved a Wilson Compact .45 caliber handgun from the Hummer’s center console and walked back to where Schwerin was waiting.
Prosecutors at Coleman’s trial would make much of the gesture that followed. Standing only inches from Schwerin, Coleman placed the tip of his gun on Schwerin’s lips and forced the muzzle into his mouth, according to multiple testimonies. (Coleman disputes this characterization and says instead that he placed the gun “between [Schwerin’s] nose and his mouth,” though one imagines a jury drawing little distinction between the two acts.) The men paused in this tableau for a moment. Then, fewer than 15 minutes after the encounter had begun, Coleman took several steps backward, raised his gun, and shot Schwerin in the chest.
The trial of Ray Coleman began on July 12, 2010, in the Criminal Court of Shelby County, Tennessee, the same institution in which, 41 years earlier, James Earl Ray had pleaded guilty to the charge of assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. Presiding over the trial was Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr., a former assistant U.S. attorney who, in December 2011, was nominated to the federal bench by Barack Obama. (Fowlkes was confirmed this past July.)
The highest charge against Coleman presented prosecutors with a particular challenge. In order to secure a conviction for second-degree murder rather than the lesser included offenses of voluntary manslaughter, reckless homicide, or criminally negligent homicide, they would have to prove that Coleman’s act did not arise from a state of passion — that the defendant, with clear mind, knowingly and without provocation chose to end Schwerin’s life.
The burden upon Coleman’s attorneys, who had chosen to argue self-defense, was ostensibly simpler. Were they to show that Coleman held a reasonable belief that death or serious injury to himself or his wife were imminent, even if that belief were mistaken, he would be acquitted.
Though both sides entered the courtroom confident of victory, the prosecuting team, led by Assistant District Attorney Paul Hagerman, seemed particularly certain of Coleman’s guilt. For Hagerman, the trial was an opportunity to show that Coleman, who is 5’11”, had acted not in self-defense but out of a desire to impose his will on a larger man. (Dutch Schwerin was 6’1” and outweighed Coleman by nearly 60 pounds at the time of his death.)
In his opening statement, delivered on a wet July day 17 months after the shooting, Hagerman pursued this theme relentlessly. “Harry Coleman was mad, so he killed a man,” Hagerman told the jury. “He killed a man by sticking a gun in his face. He killed a man after dragging the gun down to his mouth in an attempt to threaten and dominate. He killed a man who was unarmed. He killed a man even though there were no threats. Harry Coleman killed a man because he wanted to.”
In order to prove their theory, Hagerman and Eric Christensen, a second state prosecutor who assisted with the case, turned to the members of Schwerin’s family who had been present on the night of his death. Like the Coleman family, the Schwerins had met that evening at Villa Castrioti, the Italian restaurant from which Coleman was summoned into the parking lot. In attendance at the dinner were the parents of Schwerin’s deceased wife, his 20- and 21-year-old sons, Colt and Dallas, and their 15-year-old sister, Savannah. Joining Schwerin’s sons were Asia Smith and Katie Johnson, the young men’s girlfriends.
Katie Johnson was the first witness to take the stand, and her testimony gave direct support to Hagerman and Christensen’s premise. Upon leaving the restaurant, Johnson testified, she walked with Schwerin and Savannah to the Denali, where the three of them were confronted by Katheryn Coleman. According to Johnson, Katheryn stood in the path of the Denali and “was in Dutch’s face the whole time, hollering and screaming and cussing at him.” Though Katheryn would later deny preventing Schwerin’s exit or using profanity (“I called him a fat head; that’s the only thing I called him”), Johnson’s recollection of events was supported by all three of Schwerin’s children, as well as Asia Smith, and the narrative established by her testimony — that Katheryn had herself been an aggressor — would prove damaging to Coleman’s case throughout the duration of the trial. So, too, would Johnson’s assertion, again echoed by other witnesses, that while Schwerin’s speech toward Coleman and Katheryn was abusive, Schwerin never threatened Coleman or advanced toward him “in an angry and menacing way,” a claim that was central to Coleman’s defense.
Other prosecution witnesses landed similar blows to Coleman’s claim of self-defense. Called to the stand after Katie Johnson, Asia Smith reported hearing Katheryn taunt Schwerin upon Coleman’s arrival in the parking lot, encouraging him to “talk bad to me again” in her husband’s presence. Dallas Schwerin testified that, upon shooting their father, Coleman threatened Schwerin’s children, stating, “Get away, or I’ll shoot you, too.” Perhaps most damaging to Coleman’s narrative of victimization were the statements of Erik Jensen, an arresting officer at the scene. According to Jensen’s testimony, proposed by Hagerman in a heated bench conference and later offered in open court over strenuous defense objections, Dallas and Colt told officers after the shooting that Katheryn should be arrested along with her husband. Katheryn’s response, yelled across the parking lot, was, “Fuck you, I hope he dies.”