Honor Bound

What really happened in the Trinity Commons parking lot?

(page 5 of 7)


Besides prolonging his encounter with Schwerin, Coleman’s insistence upon his rights as a gentleman can be connected to an episode that remains one of the case’s strangest and most tragic. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, following the arrival of the police and his subsequent arrest, Coleman spent three days in Shelby County Jail before his release on bail, an experience that affected him profoundly.

Unlike WTSP, which, generally speaking, enjoys a good reputation among inmates, Shelby County Jail is notorious for its chaotic environment. Known locally by its address, 201 Poplar, the jail has been alluded to in songs by a number of Memphis-based rap artists, including the Academy Award-winning group Three 6 Mafia. (In “Long Nite,” a song set partially in the jail, the group laments, “It ain’t no fun watching them niggas fight over phone calls.”) The jail’s annual bookings approach 56,000, a number that includes an average of 70 juveniles each day. 

When I asked him about his time in 201, Coleman spoke with a hard edge rarely present during our conversations. “It was unbelievable,” he told me. “I mean, hollering and screaming and gang members.” He went on: “In my mind, I said, ‘I ain’t going back. No way a man can live like that.’” Seventeen months later, his trial quickly approaching, Coleman decided that he stood only a one percent chance of conviction. “And I said, ‘Well, if that one percent comes, I ain’t going to jail. I’ve got a lot of insurance that’ll take care of my kids forever and ever, and I’ve lived a good life.’”

On the fifth day of his trial, aware that the case would likely proceed to the jury by late afternoon, Coleman followed through on his promise. Filling a small pill bottle with ether, he taped it to his chest beneath his clothes. “I’d always heard that ether is how they kill mules,” he told me, his voice cracking. “You know, when you got through with an old mule back farming, everybody would pat their old mule, and they’d put a washrag full of ether over the mule’s mouth, and he’d just slowly pass away.”

Sitting in the courtroom later that evening (the jury’s deliberation began at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon and lasted fewer than three hours, a fact that Coleman mentioned to me on more than one occasion), both families awaited the verdict. Once the decision was read, a bailiff escorted the defendant to a small holding area where, after speaking briefly with Steve Farese (Leslie Ballin had returned to the courtroom to sit with Katheryn), Coleman excused himself and stepped into an adjacent bathroom. Not yet handcuffed, he sat down on a toilet, removed the ether bottle from his chest, extracted one of the cotton balls he had placed inside it, and stuck the cotton in his nose.


The prosectution's central witness from outside the victim's family was, in many respects, the trial's most mysterious figure. A practicing Muslim and a pillar of his community, Joseph Sneed was also a former criminal with a significant legal history. Yet neither his past nor his unfamiliar garments seem to have undermined his credibility with the jury.

Testifying at Coleman’s sentencing hearing, Officer Overton Wright, who, on the day of the verdict, was in charge of inmate security, recalled hearing knocking from inside the holding area. “I opened the door, and Mr. Farese told me that something was wrong with Mr. Coleman,” Wright told the court. Following Farese, he entered the bathroom to find Coleman collapsed on a toilet. “And I smelled what I believed to be some strong odor. And I noticed he was real red, so I grabbed him, and he snatched his hand back and put it back over his nose.” Wright continued: “He kind of struggled with me a little, but I got his hands behind his back, put him on the bench, cuffed him, pulled him to the floor and rolled him over, and there was a large piece of white cotton ball stuck up in his right nostril.”

Using the earpiece of Coleman’s eyeglasses, Wright and a second officer managed to remove the obstruction from his nostril. The two men alerted a team of medics, and Coleman was taken to the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, less than a mile from the courthouse. There, Wright had the opportunity to speak with Coleman. “Once we got him to the hospital, and the doctors kind of revived him a little,” Wright testified, “he thanked me for saving his life.”

That Fowlkes could have taken Coleman’s suicide attempt into account when imposing his sentence surely escaped neither the defense nor the prosecution. Arguing for a term of 23 years — a sentence only two years short of the maximum allowed by law—Hagerman asked the court to take note of a Tennessee legal precedent known as State v. Jordan, which allows judges to consider “any criminal behavior occurring between the time of conviction and the time of sentence.” Despite Hagerman’s argument and the vivid testimony of Officer Wright, however, Fowlkes ultimately declined to hold Coleman’s act against him. “Maybe it is an insult to the court the way he acted back there in the lockup,” Fowlkes said, “but I’m not going to apply that.”

Early last month, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals heard oral arguments in the case of State of Tennessee v. Harry Coleman. (Coleman’s first appeal, presented to Judge Fowlkes, was denied last summer.) In furtherance of his client’s request for a new trial, William Massey, the Memphis-based attorney who has taken over for Ballin and Farese, argued before the three-judge panel that the psychiatric diagnosis offered at Coleman’s sentencing hearing — Bipolar 1 Disorder with Psychotic Features — would likely have altered the trial’s outcome had the jury been aware of it. The state’s contention, conversely, is that because Coleman’s diagnosis was reached only as a result of his actions post-verdict (Coleman was taken to the Memphis Mental Health Institute for analysis after his suicide attempt), the diagnosis fails, as a matter of law, to meet the standard for newly discovered evidence. A decision is expected by the end of the year. 

Though the psychiatric evidence is significant (if nothing else, it advances Massey’s claim that “[Coleman] acted in a state of passion”), Coleman himself is clearly uncommitted to it. “Did I have some psychosis that night?” he asked aloud during a recent conversation. “My psychiatrist thinks I did.” Regardless, Coleman says, “I had — I know I had — a threat.” 

Should their current motion fail, Coleman told me, his team will take up, in subsequent appeals, the argument he favors: that he was the recipient of ineffective counsel. And though Leslie Ballin and Steve Farese had already begun to establish a national reputation by the time they accepted Coleman as a client, several questions linger regarding the original defense strategy.


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