|The Coleman Murders Husband and father, Chris Coleman has been arrested in connection with the murders on May 5th, of his wife, Sheri, 31 and sons, Gavin, 9, and Garett Coleman, 11, in their Columbia Lakes, Illinois home.|
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Chris Coleman found guilty
Coleman guilty of killing family, jury says
Coleman guilty of killing family, jury says BY NICHOLAS J.C. PISTOR • email@example.com > 314-340-8265 STLtoday.com | Posted: Friday, May 6, 2011 6:00 am | (396) Comments
Christopher Coleman leaves the courthouse as onlookers cheer the guilty verdicts in the case. Photo by Robert Cohen firstname.lastname@example.org
WATERLOO • Christopher Coleman was convicted Thursday night of strangling his wife and two sons as part of a plan to start a new life with his mistress without sacrificing his job as bodyguard to televangelist Joyce Meyer.
Coleman, 34, looked exasperated as verdicts were read by the jury foreman about 7:35 p.m. in court in Waterloo on the second anniversary of the murders, finding him guilty of three counts of first-degree murder.
The decision came from a jury of 10 women and two men, who had stretched their deliberations into about 15 hours over two days.
Spectators waiting outside and people spilling out of downtown bars blended into a carnival atmosphere, with about 150 — most cheering — gathered under a light drizzle to watch Coleman being driven away in a sheriff's car.
Donna Fricker, who did not know the Colemans but lived in the same subdivision in Columbia, Ill., said she was in Waterloo when she heard about the verdict and "wanted to be here." She explained, "I wanted justice to be served, and it was."
Asked if she cheered, Fricker looked sheepish and replied, "I might have clapped a little bit."
She said, "I felt sorry for his parents. I just wanted to know that he didn't get away with it like he thought he would. He's not as smart as he thought."
Matt Tutor of Waterloo stood with friends in the crowd and said, "He finally got caught. He is finally guilty."
About 50 people clapped as jurors were driven away. One woman in the crowd, Sue Foster, of Waterloo, said, "I am a grandmother. He killed his children. How can he do that? That's not a man, that's a monster. We have supported him long enough in jail. He needs the death penalty."
Mario DeCicco, Sheri Coleman's brother, told reporters, "Now we know the truth," and said, "Justice was done today." A woman standing with the family moments after the verdict was read declared, "We got him!"
Coleman's parents, the Rev. Ronald and Connie Coleman, looking somber, declined to answer questions as they got into their car and left the town square. Another of their sons, Brad Coleman, said that his "whole family is still grieving for the loss of Sheri, Garett and Gavin." He added, "In our eyes, Chris is still innocent."
Circuit Judge Milton Wharton ordered the jurors to return at 10 a.m. today for a separate hearing to consider the prosecution's call for the death penalty. The hearing could last several days, but it appears to be only a formality. Because Illinois abolished capital punishment effective July 1, Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to commute any death sentences delivered before then to life in prison.
Ed Parkinson, an assistant attorney general who assisted with the prosecution, said after the verdict, "It was a good day for Sheri and the boys."
The lead prosecutor, State's Attorney Kris Reitz, said, "I did my talking in court."
Joe Edwards, the Columbia police chief, said he was "confident but not comfortable" as the deliberations wore on. "I was concerned, was there something we didn't do?" he asked. "Maybe there is something the jury is thinking about that we didn't."
He noted, "Two years to the day, it's incredible to hear 'guilty, guilty, guilty.'"
The verdict was welcomed in the Colemans' old neighborhood, where a bank foreclosed on the murder house and it still sits vacant.
"I'm ecstatic," said Shannon Hrdlicka, who lives down the way. "I think the right verdict came down."
Across the street, Ryan Monton said he hoped Coleman was sentenced to death. Monton fretted that the vacant house was a reminder of the crime. "It's eerie," he said. "I ride my bike past there and it's just hard to look at it, knowing what happened inside."
The Monroe County case was heard by a jury chosen in Perry County, Ill., farther from the intense publicity that attended the case since the victims' bodies were found May 5, 2009. Jurors have been bused to court in Waterloo for the nine days of trial since opening arguments April 25.
They were sent out to deliberate about 3 p.m. Wednesday, went back to their homes shortly after 8 p.m. and resumed their work in Waterloo before 10 a.m. Thursday.
The trial featured a lurid combination of sex, religion and violence woven together into a circumstantial case in which Coleman was not identified as the killer by physical evidence or any witness.
Prosecutors alleged that Coleman wanted to leave his wife, Sheri, 31, to marry her onetime best friend, Tara Lintz, of Largo, Fla., with whom he had a months-long affair. But exposing his adultery, officials said, would have jeopardized his $100,000-a-year job as bodyguard for Meyer, whose ministry is based in Fenton.
Coleman did not testify in the trial. The defense did not dispute the affair, although his lawyers did insist that the marriage was improving.
The state's case was buoyed by testimony from police computer experts that Coleman's own laptop, accessed by his own password, was the source of anonymous profane threats against his family that he had reported to police as early as November 2008. The prosecution claimed that the threats, attacking his work for Meyer, were part of a murder plan, intended to divert the attention of police once the killings were carried out.
Perhaps the most damaging testimony came from a prosecution consultant, Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist and former chief medical examiner of New York City, who told the jury the victims were killed about 3 a.m. That's almost three hours before Coleman left home that morning, a point at which he said his family was alive.
Reitz called Baden his 'star witness."
The defense claimed that police turned to Baden only after the coroner's pathologist, Dr. Raj Nanduri, who performed the autopsies, refused to pinpoint a time. During the trial, she testified that it might have been between 3 and 5 a.m.
Coleman left at 5:43 a.m., confirmed by a nearby surveillance camera, for a workout at a gym in south St. Louis County. Before 7 a.m., he called a neighbor, Columbia police Detective Justin Barlow, to say he was worried that nobody was answering the phone at home, and asked that Barlow check his house.
Barlow and another officer found an open rear basement window, entered with guns drawn and found Sheri Coleman and sons Garett, 11, and Gavin, 9, strangled in their separate bedrooms. The killer had written obscene taunts on walls and the sheet covering one of the boys.
Coleman arrived home shortly later. But despite his panic, prosecutors noted, AT&T cellphone records show that he did not take a direct path home, but instead strayed north of Columbia.
Police later found that the paint used by the killer was the same brand and color as a can Coleman bought months before.
Lintz testified about the affair, and acknowledged that she was still wearing a "promise ring" Coleman had given her. She was not asked the status of the relationship now, nor whether she was aware of any murder plan. The judge permitted the prosecution to show the jury sexually charged photos and videos the couple made together or for each other.
Meyer, a longtime friend of Coleman's parents, testified by video deposition that she had not known of the affair and that he might have lost his job if she had known.
Mike King, the lawyer and spokesman for the ministry, declined comment Thursday night.
The defense presented just two witnesses: experts to rebut prosecution witness claims that the handwriting and linguistics of the premurder threats and sprayed messages were similar to Coleman's known writing.
During deliberations, jurors asked to see the window, which had been used as evidence, a source close to the court said. A manufacturer's representative said it did not appear to have been forced open or damaged.
The jury, instructed to convict Coleman if it found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, at one point asked the judge for a definition of "reasonable doubt," another source said. It was not known how he answered.
Steven Beckett, a law professor at the University of Illinois, told a reporter Thursday that it is a common jury question, but explained, "The law has no definition."
Among evidence the jury was not allowed to hear were statements by friends of Sheri Coleman's that she had told them that she was afraid of her husband and had carried a gun. Some friends did testify last week about her call for prayers, efforts to save her marriage and her feeling that she and her sons were in the way of her husband's plans. When one friend blurted out that Sheri Coleman had confided in her that her husband had beaten her, Wharton instructed jurors to pretend they never heard it.
Christopher Coleman grew up in Chester, Ill., and joined the Marine Corps after graduating from Chester High School in 1995. He was in the service when he met Sheri, a military police officer in the Air Force. After leaving the Marines, he started work building the Joyce Meyer Ministries' security department, and later became her bodyguard.
The region was so transfixed by the courtroom drama that Sandra Sauget, the Monroe County Circuit Clerk, said there was a waiting list of 165 area residents hoping to sit in on the trial.
Tim O'Neil, Patrick O'Connell and Marlon A. Walker of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
If you can't stand the heat, don't tickle the dragon!
Coleman averts jury; judge issues life terms
Coleman averts jury; judge issues life terms
BY NICHOLAS J.C. PISTOR
WATERLOO • Jurors informally decided on a death sentence for Christopher Coleman, one said Monday, before the convicted killer cast his fate to a judge instead and received three life terms without possibility of parole.
The decision to waive a penalty decision from the jury that convicted him of first-degree murder was a surprise Monday morning that pushed his trial in court here to an early end on its 11th day.
Coleman, 34, found guilty last week of strangling his wife and two sons in their home in Columbia, Ill., ultimately would have ended up with a life sentence in any event.
Prosecutors persisted in seeking a death sentence even after the Legislature abolished capital punishment, effective July 1. Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to commute all earlier death sentences issued before then to life terms.
Prosecutors said the murder was the culmination of a plot to leave his wife, Sheri Coleman, to marry her onetime best friend, Tara Lintz, and avoid exposing adultery that could have threatened his job as bodyguard for televangelist Joyce Meyer.
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One of the jurors, Kimberly Ferrari, said in an interview in her home in Pinckneyville, Ill., that she thinks the jurors were prepared to vote for death.
She also explained why it took the panel 15 hours over two days to deliver a guilty verdict that many observers in the Monroe County Courthouse figured would come more quickly.
Ferrari, a nurse, said all 12 believed Coleman had done it, but several were initially unwilling to find him guilty because the prosecution was built entirely on circumstantial evidence.
She said the jurors voted 8-4 in favor of "guilty" early in their deliberations Wednesday, and by that night it weakened to 7-5.
"Nothing solid or concrete, no murder weapon," said Ferrari, who said she voted for guilty throughout.
On Thursday, she said, jurors shifted to 9-3. What she described as the "ah-ha moment" was their agreement that dates listed on photographs on the cellphones of Coleman and Lintz showed deception.
Ferrari said time stamps showed that photos of the two in romantic poses had been taken as early as October 2008, in contradiction of testimony by Lintz that the affair began two months later.
The juror said the time stamps also showed that Coleman was deleting photos while police were interviewing him on the day of the murders. Ferrari said one of the jury holdouts pondered the picture dates and said, "Oh, my God." Once they agreed those dates were significant, she said, the vote shifted to 12-0.
"They all believed he did it," she explained. "They were just trying to figure it out."
Ferrari said one thing that surprised her was Lintz's decision to testify while wearing the promise ring she told the court Coleman had given her. "That was something," the juror said.
THE JUDGE DECIDES
Once Coleman opted to have the judge decide the punishment, the prosecution and defense went straight into closing arguments late Monday morning, without presenting witnesses who would have been calculated to mold the jury's view of Coleman. The jurors chose to remain in court as spectators.
State's Attorney Kris Reitz told Judge Milton Wharton that Coleman should be executed because of the "hateful, shocking evil" of the crime. "He felt them die," the prosecutor noted, given that the three were strangled with a ligature.
Defense lawyer John O'Gara acknowledged that public sentiment is strong, asking, "Can there be a more hated man right now than this one?" But he said the judge should find compassion despite the outcry.
Wharton called them back at 1 p.m., and Coleman arrived in a blue dress shirt and tie. He smiled at family in the spectators' gallery before sitting down. From that point, his eyes were fixed on the judge.
During the 20-minute hearing, Wharton told a story of being a young lawyer years ago, visiting the Menard Correctional Center, the Illinois maximum-security prison at Chester.
"I saw a lot of young men, age 19 and 20, but I came away with something else I saw that shocked me: I saw old men in wheelchairs, with canes and with beards. Those were the 'lifers,'" Wharton said. "A life sentence is most potent retribution.
"In reviewing this case, I cannot find that the defendant is a danger to society," the judge said. "He is no danger to prison. ... this defendant is possibly a danger to himself" and may possibly be endangered "by other inmates."
"The horrible nature of the crime cannot be diminished," Wharton said. "Look at the pictures of the wife and two kids, particularly the ones in their beds. That should be a place of safety."
The judge took note that the death penalty in Illinois is ending, and said, "A sentence of death may be expedient from the standpoint of the court, but I also believe it would compound the tragedy that the family already has experienced, and would make me engage in a symbolic sentence of death."
Jurors declined to be interviewed in Waterloo by reporters, and left town on buses headed for their homes in Perry County. They had been selected there for the Monroe County case because it is more distant from intense publicity about the case in the St. Louis area.
LAWYERS, POLICE REACT
O'Gara, the defense attorney, said the decision to waive the jury was Coleman's 'specific request," meant to save his family and the jurors from an essentially meaningless task.
"He didn't want to put his family through having to testify here on a very emotional day," O'Gara said. "He didn't want to put the jury through any more. He didn't want to put anybody through any more."
O'Gara said he was pleased the judge did not give Coleman the death penalty but declined to call it a 'small victory" when asked by a reporter.
"There aren't any small victories here," he said. "All there is, is tragedy."
Defense co-counsel William Margulis told reporters the case was "as tough as they come."
Columbia Police Chief Joe Edwards, whose officers found the bodies and led the investigation with help of the Major Case Squad and Illinois State Police, said he respected the judge's decision but would have preferred a capital sentence.
"If there ever is a case where the death penalty is appropriate, this is it," Edwards said. "There is no greater evil than murdering your wife and two children while they are sleeping in their beds."
The bodies of Sheri Coleman, 31, and the couple's two sons, Garett, 11, and Gavin, 9, were found May 5, 2009.
Prosecutors said Christopher Coleman had plotted the murders since November 2008, when he began a sexual relationship with Lintz, a cocktail waitress from Largo, Fla.
Coleman earned $100,000 a year as security chief for the Fenton-based Joyce Meyer Ministries. Testifying by video deposition in the trial, Meyer confirmed prosecutors' claims that if she had found out about his infidelity, he might have lost his employment.
Photo of girlfriend
In your lifetime, try to be the person your pet thinks you are.
Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened.
"The purity of a person's heart can be quickly measured by how they regard animals"
"Who can believe that there is no soul behind those luminous eyes!"
When I saw his parents on 48 Hours Mystery, they are still so much in denial. They still think he is innocent.
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