Honor Bound

What really happened in the Trinity Commons parking lot?

(page 4 of 7)


Coleman, whose relationship with firearms has spanned more than five decades, rejects absolutely the suggestion that the presence of a weapon emboldened him during his encounter with Schwerin. Rather, he says, his experience with guns is indicative of his innocence: He wouldn’t have fired if he’d had a choice. 

To illustrate this notion, Coleman points to the testimony of Joseph Sneed, the tall young man in Muslim garb who told the jury that Coleman frothed at the mouth and moaned shortly before the shooting. According to Coleman, the noises Sneed heard weren’t moans at all but a strategy recommended by police to citizens seeking a carry permit: the word “stop” repeated multiple times in an unsuccessful attempt to convince the charging Schwerin to halt. “We were taught that when I had to go get a pistol permit,” Coleman told me. “That’s one of the things the highway patrolman who taught us said: ‘Man, do anything you can to keep from shooting.’” 

As further evidence of his equanimity, Coleman offers anecdotes from his experiences as a property owner. “I’ve caught people cooking meth out on the land,” he said. “I’ve faced down many a gun.” Yet, regardless of these provocations, on no previous occasion had he drawn his weapon and pointed it at another person. The pistol in his Hummer, he informed me, was kept for shooting armadillos on the side of the road. 

Despite his imprisonment for a gun-related crime, Coleman, who was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in the heart of the Mississippi Delta region characterized by the historian James C. Cobb as “the most Southern place on Earth,” speaks warmly and often about the role firearms have played in his life. “I started hunting and fishing when I was 7, 8 years old and had my first gun when I was 15” — a narrative that would have been shared by “90 percent” of the Greenville population. As a young man, Coleman joined the National Guard, where he served for eight years, eventually rising to the rank of captain before leaving in order to concentrate exclusively on real estate. 

Though the psyciatric evidence is significant, Coleman himself is clearly uncommitted to it. "Did I have some psychosis that night?" he asked aloud during a recent conversation. "My psyciatrist thinks I did."

Though the career that followed succeeded beyond his expectations (Coleman readily assents to the phrase “self-made millionaire” and credits his success to a brief stint at Merrill Lynch, who “really taught me some zeroes”), even these memories are infused with tales from the hunt. “I’ve had some of the most die-hard Yankee attorneys from Wall Street come and visit me in Jackson, Mississippi,” Coleman told me, “and they’d fly in there and we’d work during the week, and they’d say, ‘What are we going to do on the weekend?’ and I’d say, ‘We’re going dove hunting.’”

Though guns dominated Coleman’s family culture — and, by his telling, that of the broader South — of perhaps even greater consequence is his open admiration for the South’s system of honor, a tradition he believes to be quickly disappearing. Since his arrival at WTSP, Coleman has established a reputation as a model inmate. His single dispute with a member of the prison’s staff occurred when, like Schwerin, a guard cursed at him, an occurrence that Coleman considered an affront to his dignity. Similarly, when I asked him if he had inherited money from his parents, who had owned and operated a hardware store, Coleman spoke instead of the good name they had handed down. “That kind of stuff goes a long way in Mississippi,” he said. “I mean, you could walk into a bank and it was the old word ‘character.’ Character would just as much get you a loan as a financial statement back then.”

Reflecting on their confrontation, Coleman is quick to ascribe similar thinking to Schwerin. When I asked him why, in his opinion, Schwerin hadn’t fled at the sight of a gun, Coleman suggested that his opponent may have been governed by his own sense of honor. “Maybe he didn’t want to back down in front of his children,” Coleman told me. Recalling the moment in which he pressed his gun against Schwerin’s face, Coleman claims to have lowered his voice in order to lessen the larger man’s humiliation. “I told him to leave us alone, go home, we’re scared. And the reason I leaned into him was that I didn’t want to embarrass him.”

Looked at in a certain way, then, Coleman’s encounter with Schwerin can be understood not merely as an argument but as a sophisticated and intricate cultural exchange — one in which each man felt obligated not to relent. It is through this lens that Coleman appears most obviously guilty. Schwerin swore at him — Schwerin behaved like a bully — and Coleman, believing his honor to be at stake, took action. 

Throughout the trial, the defense’s case was damaged by a question meant to assert just such a theory — one so obvious it surely would have occurred to the jury even if the state’s attorneys hadn’t raised it repeatedly. Given the presence of his automobile — given the fact that he, not Schwerin, had been armed — why hadn’t Coleman simply left the scene? When I asked him this very question, his responses were alternately bewildered (“What was I supposed to do, leave my family?”) and reflective (“I think that’s where we lost the trial”). Yet the answer he ultimately provided seems both closest to the truth and most damning: “I don’t think I’m the kind of guy to run.”


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