Nineteen years behind bars for a crime he didn't commit
Christopher L. Coleman, who was convicted of taking part in an armed home invasion and related crimes in Peoria in 1994, languished behind bars for more than 19 years until he was released on bond in November 2013 after the Illinois Supreme Court reversed his conviction and remanded his case for a retrial based on “compelling evidence of actual innocence.” In March 2014, the Peoria County State’s Attorney’s office dropped the charges.
At his 1995 jury trial before Peoria County Circuit Court Judge Robert Barnes Jr., the prosecution alleged that Coleman had been among a group of masked men who broke into a home shared by five women, some of whom were robbed and beaten and one of whom was raped. Coleman, 20 at the time of the crime, was not accused of committing the rape, but rather of being accountable for it.
There was no physical evidence linking Coleman to the crime, but two of the women—the mother and sister of the rape victim—identified him in court. The mother testified that she had known him years earlier and, although she had not seen him recently, recognized him by his voice and distinctive walk, which she described as “kind of crooked like.” The sister testified that she knew Coleman as “Fats” and recognized him when he removed his mask during the crime. Neither of the women had identified Coleman to responding officers or during the grand jury hearing, and the sister had incorrectly identified at least two other alleged participants.
One admitted participant in the crime, Robert Nixon, who earlier had pleaded guilty and had been sentenced to 12 years in prison, testified for the defense that Coleman had not been involved. Coleman presented an alibi defense, testifying that at the time of the crime in the early morning hours of August 22, 1994, he had been with his girlfriend and another woman, both of whom took the stand to corroborate his alibi. The jury nonetheless found Coleman guilty of armed robbery, home invasion, residential burglary, and aggravated criminal sexual assault.
Before sentencing, Coleman filed a motion for a new trial. At a hearing on the motion, another of the admitted participants in the crime—James Coats, who had pleaded guilty and had been sentenced to 15 years in prison—testified, as Nixon had, that Coleman had not been involved in the crime. Judge Barnes denied the motion and on August 4, 1995, sentenced Coleman, then age 21, to 60 years in prison (two consecutive terms of 30 years each). The conviction was affirmed by the Illinois Appellate Court, Third District, in 1997. Coleman next filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, but it was denied without a hearing, and the Appellate Court affirmed the denial in 2001.
At Menard Correctional Center, Coleman happened to become a cellmate of Dana Holland, a client of Karen L. Daniel, a staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. At Holland’s behest, after he was exonerated in 2003, Daniel and a team of Northwestern law students began looking into Coleman’s case. In 2009, Daniel and the student team filed a successive petition for post-conviction relief on Coleman’s behalf based on newly discovered evidence of actual innocence. The prosecution did not object, but rather asked Judge Michael E. Brandt to hold a hearing on the petition.
At the hearing, which stretched over six months in 2009 and 2010, four admitted participants in the crime, who had not been charged, testified that Coleman had not been involved. A total of eight witnesses testified on Coleman's behalf. On April 26, 2010, Judge Brandt issued an opinion denying Coleman a new trial. While Brandt conceded that it was possible that Coleman was innocent, the judge was of the opinion that the new evidence was not of “such a conclusive character that it would probably change the result on retrial.” In 2011, the Third District Illinois Appellate Court affirmed, deeming Brandt’s opinion “well-reasoned.”
On October 3, 2013, however, the Illinois Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Mary Jane Theis, reversed and remanded Coleman's convictions, holding that in light of the “compelling evidence” of Coleman’s innocence, the trial court’s denial of relief had been “manifestly erroneous.”
Coleman’s family posted a $10,000 cash bond to secure his release pending a possible retrial and he was released on November 26, 2013—in time to enjoy Thanksgiving at home with his family for the first time in 19 years. There would be no retrial, however. On March 13, 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charges.
On March 5, 2015, Coleman was granted a certificate of innocence by Judge David A. Brown of the Circuit Court of Peoria County.