Honor Bound

What Really Happened in the Trinity Commons Parking Lot?



(page 6 of 7)

 

On March 18, 2010, J. Keith Haney, a private investigator secured by Coleman’s attorneys, drove to Marshall County, Mississippi, to interview Larry Britt, a county engineer whose work had taken him, years earlier, to Dutch Schwerin’s residence. (Schwerin kept homes in both the Memphis area and Byhalia.) According to notes forwarded by Haney to Leslie Ballin, Britt’s first encounter with Schwerin occurred when Britt informed the residents of Schwerin’s street that new water lines needed to be installed in the road. Though Schwerin was “cordial” during their first meeting, when Britt returned 10 days later to speak with a neighbor, Schwerin confronted him, calling him a “lying son of a bitch” and accusing him of telling Schwerin’s wife that her husband alone was delaying installation of the new line.

Though Britt protested (“Mr. Britt tried to tell Schwerin that he had not seen or talked to his wife since the day he had been at his house,” Haney wrote), Schwerin continued to accost him, “ranting and raving and acting as though if he were loud enough and bullied enough, he would get his way.” Britt went on, according to Haney’s notes, describing Schwerin as a “big, blow-hard bully” who could easily have intimidated “somebody smaller.” Upon learning of the manner of Schwerin’s death, Haney wrote, Britt was unsurprised: “Schwerin tried his stuff with the wrong person, and it got him.”

That Larry Britt might have provided crucial evidence of Schwerin’s character is a fact not lost on Coleman. Yet a second piece of evidence, similarly unused by the defense, presents an even more convincing picture of the deceased. Nearly a year before his interview with Larry Britt, Keith Haney traveled to Marshall County at the request of Robbie and Richard Hornsby, a husband and wife whose property abutted that of a man named William E. Rentrop, Dutch Schwerin’s father-in-law. According to the Hornsbys, who had contacted Coleman’s attorneys shortly after learning of Schwerin’s death, their encounter with Schwerin proceeded from a standing arrangement between Rentrop and Richard Hornsby, who had agreed to keep an eye on his neighbor’s property in exchange for hunting and four-wheeling rights. (Though Rentrop owned 151 acres, he used the land only for recreation and lived elsewhere.)

Plunk told the police that Coleman "was trying to keep from getting sucker-punched by somebody. He was in total defensive mode. The whole time Ray was backing up, the victim was coming for him."

As Haney later told Coleman’s attorneys, Robbie Hornsby answered a knock at her door on an April morning in 2004 to find Dutch Schwerin standing just beyond the threshold. Schwerin, according to Haney’s notes, began “screaming and cussing at Robbie,” demanding to know who had been riding four-wheelers on “his” land. Though Robbie attempted to calm Schwerin, he grew angrier, telling her, “If any of you ever come back on my property, I’ll kill you, kill your family, kill your pets, everything” — a threat remarkably similar to the one Coleman himself reported receiving from Schwerin. Terrified, Robbie called her husband, who, after a brief, similarly violent conversation with Schwerin, came home and notified the police.

Keith Haney would later report to Coleman’s attorneys that the Hornsbys were so shaken by Schwerin’s behavior and threats that, soon thereafter, the two of them purchased a gun “to keep at the house in case Schwerin came back.” Like Larry Britt, the Hornsbys claimed not to be surprised by Schwerin’s death. Yet the two of them went further: “Both Robbie and Richard stated that they know it is not the right thing to feel,” Haney’s notes recall, “but [they] both felt a large sense of relief knowing that Schwerin was dead and not coming back to hurt them.”

 

When I asked him about these witnesses, Leslie Ballin offered a persuasive defense of the decision not to call them before the court. In the first place, Ballin told me, the introduction of “bad acts” witnesses on the part of the defense would have opened the door to rebuttal witnesses from the prosecution. (According to the Tennessee Rules of Evidence, the prosecution may only introduce such testimony “if the accused attacks the character of the alleged victim.”) Thus, testimony offered by the Hornsbys and Larry Britt would likely have been countered by prosecution witnesses praising Schwerin — a risk given the victim’s widower status (Emilie Schwerin passed away in 2004) and 21 years’ service at a respected corporation. Furthermore, Ballin argued, “bad acts” witnesses would have been exposed to a simple but devious question on cross examination — one designed to illustrate Coleman’s guilt further: “When Schwerin annoyed you,” the prosecution would have asked, “did you shoot him?”

Despite these arguments, Coleman, who, at the time, signed off on the decision not to call the additional witnesses, now regrets resting his case without them. (“That was a horrible mistake,” he told me.) Describing the circumstances in which the choice was presented to him, late in the afternoon on the trial’s penultimate day, Coleman recalls a conference room packed with attorneys, all of whom believed the additional witnesses to be unnecessary. “There were about 20 people in the room . . . when we were making that decision,” Coleman told me. “And we had to make that decision in like an hour or something.” He went on: “We just rested too early. Steve and Leslie thought they had the trial won.” Though Coleman declines to say that he felt pressure to accede, trial documents indicate that Leslie Ballin, at least, considered the decision already made. Asked by Judge Fowlkes in an earlier bench conference if he would be calling the witnesses, Ballin made clear that he intended to convince his client. “I’ve got a two-headed coin,” Ballin said, “and I am going to go use it.”

 

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