WATERLOO, Ill. -- A jury found Christopher Coleman guilty Thursday of strangling his wife and two sons, whose bodies were found in their beds two years ago.
The verdicts on three counts of first-degree murder were returned in court here at 7:40 p.m., after about 15 hours of deliberations over two days.
Coleman reacted with an exasperated expression and looked down. He looked at his notes as the jury was polled, all agreeing with the guilty verdict.
His family, looking somber, immediately left the courtroom and went into a side room. Coleman's parents, the Rev. Ronald Coleman and Connie Coleman, got into their car and left without taking questions.
Sheri Coleman's mother, Angela DeCicco, cried. The judge warned against outward displays of emotion.
A woman who had been sitting with relatives and friends of Sheri Coleman left the courtroom and exclaimed "We got him!"
Ed Parkinson, an assistant attorney general who assisted with the prosecution, said, "It was a good day for Sheri and the boys."
Chief Joe Edwards of the Columbia police reflected on the date of the verdict.
"Two years to the day, it's incredible to hear 'guilty, guilty, guilty,"' he said. "Two years ago to this day, I stood out there and asked, 'How could this happen?"'
As Christopher Coleman was driven away in a sheriff's car about 8 p.m., about 150 people gathered along the cordoned-off driveway from the sallyport cheered, and some motorists nearby honked car horns.
"I was in (Waterloo) and I heard there was a verdict and I wanted to be here," said Donna Fricker, who lives in the Columbia Lakes subdivision where the Colemans lived. "I wanted justice to be served, and it was."
She said she did not know the Colemans.
Asked if she cheered, she looked sheepish and said, "I might have clapped a little bit."
She added, "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 in the drizzle with friends in the crowd and said, "He finally got caught. He is finally guilty."
Brad Coleman, a brother of Christopher Coleman, said his "whole family is still grieving for the loss of Sheri, Garett and Gavin."
He added: "In our eyes, Chris is still innocent."
He said that his family will look for strength in the coming days: "Our God is still the biggest. Life will go on."
Friday morning at 10 a.m., the trial will move into the death penalty phase, with prosecutors and defense lawyers presenting evidence for and against his execution. If the jury rejects a death sentence, the only alternative would be life in prison without parole.
There appears no chance that Coleman could be executed. Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who signed legislation barring imposition of death sentences after June 30, has already commuted all the existing capital sentences to life in prison, and said he will do the same with any that come along in the meantime.
In his closing argument Wednesday, Monroe County State's Attorney Kris Reitz pressed the case for death anyway. That provides a state subsidy for the costs of prosecuting and defending the case.
Closing arguments from both sides wrapped up Wednesday afternoon. The 10 women and two men of the jury were sent out to consider the charges about 3 p.m. Wednesday, although they may have spent the first hour or so taking a break and getting settled. Judge Milton Wharton sent them back to their homes shortly after 8 p.m. They returned to their deliberations at 10 a.m. Thursday.
Although it is a Monroe County trial, the group was selected in Perry County, farther from the glare of publicity about the case, and is bused back and forth from the Pinckneyville, Ill., area.
A source close to the case told the Post-Dispatch that the jury at one point asked to see a window taken from the Coleman home during deliberations Thursday. The basement window was found open when officers who discovered the bodies approached the house and appeared to be a possible point of intrusion. A representative from the manufacturer testified during the trial that the window showed no sign of having been forced open.
Another source close to the case said the jurors asked to be given the definition of "reasonable doubt" during their deliberations Wednesday.
Steven Beckett, a law professor at the University of Illinois, said Thursday that it is common for deliberating jurors to ask what "reasonable doubt" means, but that, "The law has no definition." He said judges may handle the question in various ways, and often just tell the jury to refer to its instructions to reach its own conclusion.
Christopher Coleman has insisted that his wife, Sheri Coleman, 31, and sons Garett, 11, and Gavin, 9, were slain in their beds after he left their home in Columbia, Ill., about 5:43 a.m. May 5, 2009, for a workout at a south St. Louis County gym.
Later, Coleman called a police detective who lives across the street. The family had been threatened in emails and letters, and Coleman told the detective he was worried because his wife wasn't answering the phone. He asked the detective to check on them, and after seeing an open window, the detective called for backup to check the home. The bodies were found about 7 a.m.
Coleman was having an affair with Tara Lintz, his wife's former best friend, and prosecutors claimed Coleman killed his wife and children rather than risk revealing the tryst with a messy divorce. That could have cost him his $100,000-a-year security job with Fenton-based televangelist Joyce Meyer.
Meyer, a family friend who employed Coleman as her bodyguard, testified in a video deposition played at the trial that she did not know of the affair but if she had, it could have cost Coleman his position.
Lintz, who flew in from her Florida home to testify, told the jury that she and Coleman became involved months before the killing and planned to marry. She said Coleman told her he planned to serve divorce papers on what turned out to be the day of the murders.
Perhaps the strongest evidence against Coleman came in testimony last week by Dr. Michael Baden, a nationally known forensic pathologist. He said that using photos and reports, he calculated the time of death to be about 3 a.m., hours before Coleman said he left the home with his family alive and well.
Prosecutors brought in Baden after Dr. Raj Nanduri, who performed the autopsies, declined to estimate a time of death, saying there were too many variables. When pressed by Reitz at trial, Nanduri said the time of death was likely between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. -- still before a security camera shows Coleman leaving for the gym at 5:43.
Although Coleman claimed to be worried about his family as he drove home that morning, an AT&T employee testified that cell phone records showed he did not take a direct route back.
The defense consisted of two expert witnesses Wednesday morning, called to rebut prosecution experts who claimed there were similarities between Coleman's known writing, words scrawled in red spray paint at the murder scene and threats that arrived by email and on paper for several months before the killings. The defense witnesses said a correlation couldn't be determined. One said it appeared the person who wrote the spray-painted messages tried to disguise the handwriting.
Coleman did not testify.
Prosecutors made much of the obscenity-laced threats, saying Coleman created them himself as part of a murder plan, to divert detectives from his own trail once the killings occurred.
Computer experts testified that the emailed threats were created on Coleman's own laptop computer, by someone using his password and an anonymous email account. The defense tried to raise doubts, implying someone could have remotely accessed Coleman's computer, but prosecution witnesses dismissed it.
A police witness said Coleman had purchased red paint with the same formula as the profane taunts found sprayed at the murder scene.
In closing arguments Wednesday, Reitz told the jury how Coleman had "backed himself into a corner" by promising to divorce his wife to marry Lintz when it could jeopardize his career.
As several spectators cried, Reitz described the prosecution's theory that Coleman struggled with his wife and strangled her first. Testimony indicated that Sheri Coleman had a black eye, and ligature marks on her neck and chin. The prosecutor said the commotion didn't wake the boys because "that was just Mom and Dad."
Then Reitz talked of Coleman entering the bedrooms of his sleeping sons.
"When the killer reached for them, they didn't get up and run," the prosecutor said. "Why would they run? It was just Dad."
Jim Stern, one of Coleman's defense attorneys, put forth a passionate closing argument, saying that prosecutors only used Baden because their own pathologist refused to affix an incriminating time of death.
"Dr. Nanduri got thrown under the bus by the state," Stern said. "They race off to New York and get Dr. Baden."
Stern asked jurors to remember his client's family background and work as a trusted bodyguard. "People like that don't suddenly wake up and slaughter his family," Stern said. He acknowledged that Coleman was having an affair, but said so do a lot of other people.
The lawyer also reminded the jury that Coleman notified police of the threats made against his family. "How often does a defendant go to police to investigate himself?" Stern asked.
Stern complained that the case was entirely circumstantial, with no physical evidence linking Coleman to the crime.
He pleaded with jurors to think long and hard because "you can't undo your decision."
Several pieces of potential evidence came to light before the murder trial but were not presented to the jury.
They include a video recorder faceplate found on part of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge, over which Coleman drove to a gym the morning the bodies were found.
Officials said it was consistent with the recorder missing from a security system in the victims' home. The discovery left an implication that the recorder hit the structure while being tossed into the Mississippi River and the piece broke off.
Also located along Coleman's route -- but not mentioned in court -- were a plastic glove stained with red paint and a piece of orange twine tied in a way that resembled a noose. The victims were strangled with an unspecified ligature. Similar orange twine bound straw outside the Coleman house.
Presumably, forensic tests on those items failed to link them directly to the defendant. Since they were found along the closest route back to the bulk of the St. Louis area population, it meant that anyone who killed the family might have discarded them there.
Tim O'Neil of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
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