What really happened in the Trinity Commons parking lot?
(page 7 of 7)
Whether or not the testimony of Britt and Mr. and Mrs. Hornsby would have swayed the jury, both Ballin and Coleman agree that a fourth uncalled witness — one whose absence was ultimately beyond the defense’s control — might have altered the trial’s dynamics markedly. Clark Plunk, a 62-year-old small-business owner and city commissioner from Lakeland, was eating dinner inside Villa Castrioti when Coleman’s mother-in-law entered the dining room. Speaking to police, Plunk, who had known Coleman casually for several years prior to the incident (both men frequented the restaurant), recalled staying behind when Coleman left. “After a few minutes,” he told the interrogating officer, “Ray had not returned, so I got up to go outside to see what was going on.”
Stepping onto the sidewalk, Plunk joined an encounter already well under way. “When I got within 15 yards of Ray and the people he was into it with, that’s when I saw the gun.” Plunk continued: “Ray had the gun in his right hand, and he had his left arm extended as if he was trying to protect himself.” According to Plunk’s statement, Coleman spoke to Schwerin at this point, and it is here that Plunk’s recollection of events deviates most markedly from the testimony offered by the prosecution’s witnesses. “Ray just kept saying, ‘Back up, back up,’” Plunk told police. “The guy kept coming at him. Ray was turning to left and right, like he was trying to keep himself from getting sucker-punched by somebody. He was in defensive mode. The whole time Ray was backing up, the victim kept coming at him.”
Plunk signed his statement at 12:44 on the morning of February 7th. In the weeks that followed, Coleman’s defense team kept in close contact with their witness, arranging for a private investigator to speak with Plunk and confirm his story. Armed now with a corroborating account, Coleman felt certain that he would be acquitted.
Yet before Plunk could testify, tragedy struck. Awaiting trial, Clark Plunk suffered a stroke.
Discussing the events that followed, Coleman is quick to point out that Plunk’s stroke was not permanently debilitating. According to Coleman, Keith Haney, the team’s private investigator, allowed several months to pass, then called Plunk on the telephone, anxious to gauge his condition. Plunk, Coleman recalls, simply hung up the phone. “So we give it about a month and I call him,” Coleman states. “And his sister is like his bookkeeper and secretary, and she says, ‘Ray, Clark is paranoid. He’s had his stroke, and he’s scared if he testifies he’s going to have another stroke.’” Concerned, Coleman pressed her. “This is life or death for me,” he remembers saying. Plunk’s sister replied: “Well, he considers it life or death for him, too.”
As the trial drew near, Coleman grew increasingly determined to introduce Plunk’s testimony into evidence, despite his friend’s misgivings. “So I talked to Leslie and Steve,” Coleman recalls, “and they said, ‘Well, maybe we’ll just take his deposition and then use that for the trial.’”
Yet even this plan was rejected by Plunk, who, by this point, wanted nothing more to do with Coleman’s case. “If y’all come see me,” Coleman claims that Plunk told him, “I’m going to lie.” (Plunk failed to respond to several attempts to reach him for comment.)
Though clearly disgusted by Plunk’s change of heart (“He had a convenient case of amnesia”), Leslie Ballin seemed resigned, when I spoke to him, to the defense’s powerlessness to compel Plunk to speak. (“He said his memory was going. How could I put him on the stand?”) Yet Ballin acknowledges that the defense’s inability to corroborate Coleman’s assertion that Schwerin charged him in the moments before his death posed a significant hardship at trial. Whereas the prosecution had Joseph Sneed — an independent, and presumably neutral, witness — Coleman had only his own word and that of his wife. As a consequence, Coleman’s claim was largely ignored by the state’s attorneys, who chose instead to press their theory that the defendant shot Schwerin in order to dominate him. Proper corroboration, Ballin told me, “would have helped immensely.”
In the spring of this year, I made a final trip to the West Tennessee State Penitentiary. Coleman, who has now been incarcerated, in one form or another, for more than two years, has come to believe that the state’s handling of his prosecution was exacerbated by the political ambitions of Bill Gibbons, the district attorney who supervised Hagerman and Christensen and who, in 2010, ran a brief, unsuccessful campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. As Coleman tells the story, because Dutch Schwerin worked for FedEx, whose Memphis-based employees form a powerful political constituency, Gibbons naturally pressed harder than he otherwise might have. “That’s 50,000 votes,” Coleman said. “He was in the courtroom every day.”
Of further concern to Coleman was the composition of his jury. One member, a university librarian, had “probably never touched a gun,” Coleman said. Others “didn’t even have a high school education,” and some “slept during the trial.” On this point, at least, Leslie Ballin agrees. “The jury was an enigma,” he told me. “If this case is tried ten times, eight out of ten he is acquitted.”
Despite his complaints, Coleman is aware of prison’s tendency to embitter its inhabitants, and he is determined to escape this fate. “In my case I’ve got to watch it and not fall off,” he wrote to me several months ago. “A lot of people snap in here every week.” In this pursuit, Coleman is aided by a clear conscience. Though he apologized, at sentencing, for his role in the shooting, he remains convinced of the righteousness of his actions. “I felt like I did what was necessary.”
In the summer of 2010, the Tennessee House and Senate overrode a gubernatorial veto of SB3012, a bill permitting guns in establishments that serve alcohol. The previous year saw the passage of legislation designed to allow firearms in state parks. When I asked Coleman if he regretted his lifelong relationship with guns, he seemed confused, admitting finally that he’d had little choice in the matter. “That’s the South,” he told me. Should his conviction be overturned, Coleman intends to return to hunting, the pastime that has given him so much pleasure over the course of his life. Yet he knows that whatever happens, neither family will fully recover. “It’s just been an indescribable horror.”
Graham Hillard is the founding editor of the Cumberland River Review and an associate professor of English at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville. A native Memphian, he grew up minutes away from the scene of Schwerin’s murder.