This week in innocence

Christopher Coleman is the second innocence case in the news this week.

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 five to seven armed and 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 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, and the sister had incorrectly identified at least two other alleged participants.

Coleman had an alibi that was corroborated by two witnesses. Eventually, four of the five participants in the crime testified that Coleman had no part in it.  His request for a new trial was still denied by the trial judge and an appeals court until the Illinois Supreme Court finally overturned his conviction in 2013. Remarkably, Coleman is likely free today because of an odd coincidence — he happened to have shared a cell with another convict who was eventually exonerated. After his release the cellmate, Dana Holland, convinced the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University to look into Coleman’s case.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko | March 14