Honor Bound

What Really Happened in the Trinity Commons Parking Lot?



(page 2 of 7)

 

Hagerman and Christensen’s central witness from outside Schwerin’s immediate circle was, in many respects, the trial’s most mysterious figure. Joseph Sneed, a tall, bearded 31-year-old, began the evening of February 6th in a Panera Bread Company several doors down from Villa Castrioti. Sneed, who had come to the Panera Bread Company to pick up donated food for a community organization for which he often volunteered, stumbled upon Coleman and Schwerin only by way of a second good deed. Leaving the restaurant and looking out into the parking lot, he noticed a black Mustang with its hood popped. After speaking briefly with the Mustang’s owners, he set out across the parking lot in search of jumper cables. 

It was at this point that Sneed became aware of the scene unfolding outside Villa Castrioti. “These two particular vehicles were parked facing the sidewalk,” he told the jury, “and as I approached, I remember seeing the man on the sidewalk” — Schwerin — “in between the two vehicles.” Asked by Hagerman to comment on the victim’s demeanor — a crucial aspect of both the prosecution’s and the defense’s cases — Sneed described Schwerin as bemused rather than belligerent or threatening. “It was silly to him,” Sneed testified. “He was laughing and she” — Katheryn — “was a little bit aggravated. His demeanor was, this is a joke.”

As Sneed turned to continue his search elsewhere, however, he heard a scream. Coleman, whom Sneed had not previously seen, had retrieved his gun from the interior of the Hummer and had begun “pointing it at everything that moves.” Now Sneed decided to intervene. Approaching Coleman, he tried to soothe the man. “I told him, ‘Think about what you’re doing,’” Sneed testified. “And he never said anything to me. His eyes were bloodshot, he was frothing at the mouth, and he was like, ‘Arrrgh, arrrgh.’ And I’m thinking, what’s wrong with this guy?”

Only feet away from Coleman by this point, Sneed realized that the situation was quickly deteriorating. “I’m looking in his eyes,” Sneed told the court, “and I’ve seen this look before from people on the street, as if they’re going to shoot somebody.” Concerned for his own safety, Sneed stepped aside. “And no sooner than that, you know, he shoots.” 

Despite his obvious altruism, Sneed, who would later refer to his training as an Eagle Scout when discussing his contributions to the evening, was a far more complicated figure than his actions alone suggested, a fact stressed by the defense on cross examination. A practicing Muslim and a pillar of his community, Sneed was also a former criminal with a significant legal history. (Under direct examination by Hagerman, he admitted to ten misdemeanor theft convictions and three convictions for attempted aggravated robbery.) Yet neither Sneed’s past nor his unfamiliar garments — both in court and on the evening of February 6th he wore a tobe, a long, white robe often seen on Muslim men in north and central Africa — seem to have undermined his credibility with the jury. Rather, his troubled past seems to have been outweighed by his behavior during the incident. Testifying about the moments immediately following the shooting, Sneed reported applying pressure to Schwerin’s wound and assisting with CPR, gestures that surely increased the jury’s sense of Sneed as trustworthy and even heroic. Most damningly for Coleman, he provided verification of the Schwerin family’s accounts of the evening’s climax. Had Schwerin lunged toward Coleman immediately before the shooting? Hagerman asked. Sneed’s answer: “No.”

 

 

Ray Coleman was represented at trial by the veteran criminal attorneys Leslie Ballin and Steve Farese, the crack team who, in 2007, made national headlines by securing a jail term of only seven months for Mary Winkler, the Tennessee minister’s wife whose confession of murdering her husband — she shot him in the back while he slept — was mitigated by claims of spousal abuse. Because criminal trial procedure allowed Hagerman to present his case first, Ballin and Farese’s initial job was to undermine the credibility of the state’s witnesses against Coleman. Accordingly, Farese, a tall man with a broad, sloping forehead and a reputation for bluntness, used the cross examination of Katie Johnson, the state’s first witness, to establish what would become one of the defense’s most important assertions: that because the members of Schwerin’s party were so eager to see Coleman convicted, their testimonies were essentially worthless. 

To secure this point, Farese pursued an aggressive line of inquiry. Why, he asked, had Johnson testified on direct examination that she never saw Coleman use a cell phone when her police statement, given the night of the incident and reviewed by Johnson only hours before her testimony, suggested that she had? Why was her claim, on direct, that Coleman had threatened to “blow [Schwerin’s] brains out” conspicuously absent from her police statement despite its obvious importance? For Farese, the reason was self-evident: collusion among the prosecution’s witnesses. “Someone has told you a lot of things about what happened out there that night,” he remarked to Johnson.

Ballin and Farese managed to poke similar holes in much of the testimony offered, most notably by extracting from Officer Jensen the confession that Katheryn’s alleged wish to see Schwerin dead had, like much of Katie Johnson’s testimony, been absent from the official record up to that point and was only now being asserted. Though Ballin left unsaid Jensen’s purported motive for exaggerating, the argument was implicit: Like Schwerin’s family, Jensen was too emotionally invested in a conviction to be trusted.

Despite these small victories, Ballin and Farese could only hope for an acquittal if the jury believed their larger claim — that Schwerin had been enraged on the evening in question and that Coleman’s concern for his safety had been legitimate. On this point, the defense was far less successful. Though both Katie Johnson and Schwerin’s children acknowledged on cross examination that Schwerin had used profanity, each insisted that he had been no angrier than Coleman (or Katheryn) and that Coleman had had no reason to fear for his life. Perhaps sensing that Savannah, Schwerin’s 15-year-old daughter, would be more likely than her siblings to make a damaging admission under pressure, Ballin engaged her on this point at length. 

“You know when your dad is angry?” 

“Yes.”

“You’ve seen that before?”

“Yes.”

“And the look on his face caused you to be scared, right?”

“Yes.”

“And this is your dad?”

“Yes.”

Yet even this exchange — which, interpreted in the light most favorable to the defense, might have legitimized Coleman’s professed fear by portraying Schwerin as a bully — was blunted by the prosecution. “Were you scared that your dad was going to attack Mr. Coleman?” Hagerman asked Savannah on redirect. “No,” she replied.

 

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