Group pushes to prove innocence of longtime inmate

Matt Buedel

There are two very different pictures of Christopher L. Coleman. Both were taken in prison.

One photo is the public, arguably most prominent version of the man: his mug shot.

Anyone can find it on the Web site of the Illinois Department of Corrections. And like those for thousands of other inmates, the image is inextricably linked to the barest details of his crime and punishment.

Inmate B69093. Case number 94CF764. Armed robbery. Aggravated criminal sexual assault. A pair of consecutive 30-year sentences.

The second photograph can be found only in the living room of his parents' South Peoria home.

On the top of an entertainment center, among more framed family photos than should comfortably fit on the shelf, is an image of Chris in a cap and gown, his face beaming with pride. Unlike many typical graduation photos, he stands alone.

Coleman, 35, has been incarcerated for more than 15 years. In prison, he has earned his general equivalency diploma and certificates for completing training in trades as varied as construction and electronics technology.

The old Chris never would have taken the initiative to better himself in those ways, never would say the types of things he says now. He's a real man now, family members proclaim, able to understand the role he played in his own downfall.

"I thank God for this because he's going to come out a better man than when he went in," says his sister, Kimberly Coleman. "He's going to be a productive member of society."

But there may be a tragic irony to the transformation. The prison time that has so changed his life may have been handed down for someone else's crime.

A group of attorneys and students from Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions is in the final stage of a push to prove his innocence and reverse the decision a jury reached April 6, 1995. The hearings will continue this month and possibly conclude Dec. 3 - Christopher Coleman's 36th birthday.

The crime

The robbery began about 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 22, 1994, when someone slit a window screen at 1540 W. Millman St. He slipped inside, snuck to the back door and let in a handful of men.

The robbers covered their faces, and though accounts vary, one or several guns were used to round up occupants in the home. A mother, her twin 17-year-old daughters and other family and friends had been asleep inside.

They wanted money and drugs. They announced their presence as GDs - the Gangster Disciple gang - while they threatened occupants to give up whatever valuables they had.

One man broke a vase over the mother's head and tried to steal the wedding ring off her finger. As some of the men ransacked the house, one of the twin daughters was pulled into the bathroom and raped.

And in the confusion, with approximately a dozen people in the dark house, one victim managed to call police.

A couple of the robbers apparently left before authorities swarmed the area. A few others fled upstairs with some of the victims when flashing lights appeared outside.

In a panic, the men ordered victims downstairs to tell police there had been a party, but everything was fine. The victims refused.

At least two gunmen jumped from a second-story window, while another attempted to go downstairs and claim to police that he was a victim, too.

James Coats, then 21, twisted his ankle after jumping and was arrested in the backyard. Robert Nixon, also 21 at the time, was apprehended inside the home.

The entire ordeal lasted less than 15 minutes.

The investigation

The Millman Street home invasion capped a series of similar robberies over an 11-day period that August, all of which appeared to be targeted at suspected drug houses and involved a sexual assault on at least one other occasion.

The method was crude and effective. Barge into the home, bind or blind the occupant, take whatever drugs, cash and valuables could be found. If the take wasn't big enough, move on to another target.

The Millman Street home invasion was, in fact, the second of the night. Less than an hour earlier, a group of men robbed a man and woman at 101 N. Braves Court.

According to a police report of the incident, an anonymous Crimestoppers call alerted police that shortly afterward, Christopher Coleman had been seen carrying a stereo into an apartment in the Warner Homes.

Though the exact time is not noted in the report, police quickly took Christopher Coleman into custody and brought him to the police station for questioning. Soon after, he would see other acquaintances there: Coats and Nixon.

By that time, victims of the Millman Street home invasion had identified Coats and Nixon as perpetrators. Neither initially admitted their roles.

Coats said he had gone to the house with a friend and was forced inside at gunpoint when he arrived. He told detective Patrick Rabe that he jumped out of the window in an attempt to escape and did not know police had arrived.

Nixon simply claimed he had been at the home to visit a friend and was leaving when police came to the residence.

Both men eventually would plead guilty to charges related to the home invasion on Millman Street and accept prison sentences in excess of 10 years. Neither man implicated Christopher Coleman.

Police relied on an interview with a juvenile who claimed he participated in the Millman Street home invasion and others to identify Christopher Coleman as a suspect.

Anthony Brooks, then only 12 years old, told Rabe he served as the lookout man during both home invasions that night at the direction of Chris Coleman. He also named Mark Roberson and Elbert Nickerson as the other individuals who participated in the crimes.

Brooks additionally said he, Coleman, and others who were part of the Millman Street robbery participated in two other home invasions earlier in the month.

By the end of the day Aug. 22, 1994, almost all of those individuals - Brooks, Roberson, Nickerson, Coleman, Coats and Nixon - had been identified in photo or in-person lineups presented to the twin sister of the Millman Street rape victim.

All of the adult men were subsequently arrested on charges of home invasion, unlawful use of weapons, mob action with injury and unlawful restraint. Coats had an additional charge of aggravated criminal sexual assault. Because of Brooks' status as a minor at the time, it is unclear what charges he faced.

The aftermath

Roberson, who had been positively identified by an eyewitness, was the first to go free. In an affidavit filed with Christopher Coleman's petition for a post-conviction hearing, he claims he was living and working in Chicago at the time of the crime.

When he returned home to Peoria in October 1994, police arrested him for the home invasion but released him after a day or two in jail.

Nickerson, who also was identified by the same witness, was the next to be let go. He was held in jail for almost a year - until the day before his trial was scheduled to begin. His attorney told him the news: All charges had been dismissed, and he was free to leave. However, he is currently in prison for a conviction on unlawful use of weapons.

James Coats pleaded guilty to a single count of armed robbery and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In exchange for his plea, other charges, including one related to the rape, were dropped. He has since completed that sentence and returned to prison more than once on drug charges. He remains incarcerated.

Robert Nixon also pleaded guilty to a single count of home invasion in exchange for other charges being dropped. He received 12 years in prison. Like Coats, he has been released and reoffended. He was scheduled to be released on parole Thursday for a Rock Island County conviction on sexual abuse of a minor.

Only Christopher Coleman ended up going on trial for the Millman Street home invasion, though he also was charged with several felonies for the other home invasions. All those charges eventually were dropped.

Both the mother and the daughter who initially identified Christopher Coleman in a police lineup pointed to him as one of the culprits at his trial.

Though the mother said she never saw his face, she told jurors she knew Christopher Coleman had been part of the crew that robbed her house because she recognized his limp. The daughter, too, said she saw Christopher Coleman in the house that night.

The jury ultimately convicted him on April 6, 1995. In August, he was sentenced to 60 years in prison - consecutive 30-year terms, the maximum for both counts of armed robbery and aggravated criminal sexual assault.

"I was standing in that courtroom when they said '60 years,' " says his mother, Amanda Coleman. "I lost my sanity."

Hard time

While he was awaiting trial, during the proceedings and ever since, Christopher Coleman has maintained his innocence. Most of his family has always believed him.

His parents, Donald and Amanda Coleman, don't want that belief to be perceived as naivete. They, like Peoria police, knew their son was a gang member and not always the most savory character.

"Some of what people thought about him was a creation of his own," Donald Coleman says. "He was a bit of a problem child for a while, but he's changed quite a bit. . . . I think mostly he was convicted because of who he associated with."

Christopher Coleman's only prior felony conviction for a 1991 unlawful use of weapons charge resulted because a police officer recognized him as he drove a vehicle into the Warner Homes. He was 17 at the time.

Donald Coleman in part blames himself. He's lost count of exactly how much time he has spent in the penitentiary, but it's somewhere between 12 and 15 years. He attributes the trouble to drugs, which he quit in 1997 as part of a sentence to undergo rehabilitation.

"I wasn't the best thing to look up to, as far as a father figure," Donald Coleman says.

Adds Amanda Coleman: "We did the best we could for him. We're still doing the best we can for him."

But that doesn't mean they blindly believed their son's innocence from the moment of his arrest. Donald Coleman said his first wave of anger was not because he believed his son was wrongly accused. Rather, he believed his son was capable of the crime.

Then his other son, Deondre Coleman, and Lamont Lee came to him hours after the arrest. They told him they knew Chris couldn't have committed the crime. They knew because they were the ones who had been there and escaped.

Neither Chris' half brother nor Lee came forward to admit their roles to authorities.

"It took us a lot of talking to him to get him to change his attitude and calm down because it wasn't going to help him," Donald Coleman says of his son's first years in Menard Correctional Center. "It took him about five years before he calmed down and started fighting for his freedom."

That fight led to public admissions from four men who now say they were at the Millman Street home the night of the robbery - and Chris was not - and the hearings that began in Peoria County court Oct. 29.

New confessions

In affidavits filed with Christopher Coleman's petition for a reversal of his conviction and a new trial, one of the figures central to his alleged involvement in the Millman Street robbery and other home invasions has recanted information he divulged to police.

Brooks, the alleged 12-year-old lookout man, claims in the affidavit that he wasn't at the Millman Street house or other home invasion in the early morning hours of Aug. 22, 1994.

Instead, he claims police refused to let him see his family and threatened him into telling the story they wanted to hear. That included naming Christopher Coleman as one of the robbers.

"I was told that if I didn't confess and do what was asked of me that I would be sentenced to prison and would never see my family again," Brooks wrote in the affidavit, which he signed in May 2007. "At trial, I felt pressured to lie about (Christopher) Coleman's involvement. I was scared that if I didn't say what police wanted me to I would be in trouble again."

Brooks, who is currently in prison for a conviction on aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, admits in the document that he has no knowledge of whether Christopher Coleman participated that night.

Others who have never been publicly connected to the home invasion admit, too, that they were present for the crime. Lamont Lee, Deondre Coleman, Robert Coats and Robert McKay all say they - and not Christopher Coleman - robbed the house that night.

Some details of the story differ between accounts of the men detailed in the affidavits, but the stories appear generally more consistent than previously disclosed theories of the crime.

Rabe, who led the original investigation and interviewed Brooks, questions the credibility of the new revelations. He particularly discounts Brooks' reversal of his previous statements, saying the boy knew too many details to not be involved.

"I can honestly sit here and look in the mirror and say I don't believe I've ever put an innocent person in jail," says Rabe, who retired from the department in 2004 after 17 years on the violent crime unit. "I would honestly rather let 10 guilty people go than put one innocent person in prison."

Rabe asks: "The bottom line is, I look at it and think, what do these people have to lose and what does (Christopher Coleman) have to gain?"

Indeed, it appears the statute of limitations has expired for those now admitting to the crime. But that probability hasn't kept them from being spooked.

Deondre Coleman and Robert Coats - James Coats' younger brother - had been scheduled to testify at the first hearing in the matter Oct. 29, but both fled the Peoria County Courthouse just before being called to the stand. Still, they admit to their involvement in affidavits on file with the court.

A warrant with no bond has been issued for each man's arrest, but neither man has been taken into custody.

Lee and James Coats, who both are currently incarcerated on unrelated convictions, reacted much differently than their free counterparts. They both testified before a courtroom packed with Christopher Coleman's friends and family that he had not been at the Millman Street robbery.

And in one other affidavit from Robert McKay, he admits a detail that aided in originally placing Christopher Coleman at the scene. McKay, who is incarcerated in Cook County and scheduled to be released later this month, claims he had a noticeable limp when he participated in the Millman Street home invasion, perhaps explaining the claim the mother at the house made after the incident.

A new beginning

Christopher Coleman's family looks at the involvement of the Center on Wrongful Convictions as an intervention from God. They call the students who studied the case angels and the possibility that Chris could be exonerated miraculous.

In the days leading up to the final stages of hearings, Amanda Coleman forces herself to keep busy to calm her mind. The next hearing is at 1 p.m. on Thursday in Peoria County court, and her house is spotless.

The family has been torn about the possibility one sibling has been behind bars for 15 years for the crime of another but rejoices in the idea that Chris' imprisonment may come to an end soon.

Amanda Coleman says she plans a celebration for his homecoming one minute and tries to prepare herself for the worst outcome the next.

"I'm not going to look at it one way," she says. "I have to look at it both ways."

Donald Coleman retorts: "You might be looking at it both ways, but I know he's coming home."

Matt Buedel can be reached at (309) 686-3154 or mbuedel@pjstar.com.