Sentenced to a life term on a chain-gang in 1929 for the murder of his 19-year-old wife near Jonesboro, Georgia, Robert E. Coleman, a resident of Clayton County, was exonerated as a result of the voluntary confession of the actual killer, James Starks, who was then in prison for another crime.
Mrs. Coleman’s death, on March 14, 1929, was caused by blows from a heavy weapon. Her body was found on the floor of the couple’s farm house, located in a rural section of Clayton County, Georgia. Their nine-month-old son was found, unharmed, crying in his crib. Coleman immediately notified his neighbors of the murder and reported the crime to the police. Blood stains found on Coleman’s overalls, combined with the fact that he was, at the time, the last known person to see his wife alive, led to his arrest, eventual conviction and subsequent sentence to a life term on a chain-gang.
Four years later, Rader Davis, arrested for an unrelated crime, told police that James Starks had confessed to him. On or about April 12, 1933, Starks, then in prison for burglary, gave a sworn statement and voluntarily confessed that he alone had murdered Mrs. Coleman. Starks confessed that he had entered the Coleman home shortly after Robert Coleman left to go to work in Atlanta, Georgia, and had found Mrs. Coleman and her son in the house. Starks stated that he made improper advances towards Mrs. Coleman and when she resisted, he picked up an iron poker from the fireplace and crushed her skull, causing her death. His confession, including satisfactory evidence and details, was sufficient to completely exonerate Robert Coleman.
On April 14, 1933, Coleman was pardoned by Governor Eugene Talmadge. Eight years later, on March 27, 1941, Coleman was awarded $2,500 as a result of the legislative passage of a resolution entitled Coleman Compensation for Imprisonment.
James Starks later recanted his confession, but he was tried twice and sentenced to death each time. Based on the many errors in the case, the judge resisted the sentence of death and sentenced Starks to life on the chain-gang.
- Yen N. Nguyen and Dolores Kennedy
The National Registry of Exonerations is a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. It was founded in 2012 in conjunction with the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. The Registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989—cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence. The Registry also maintains a more limited database of known exonerations prior to 1989.
We welcome new information from any source about exonerations already on our list and about cases not in the Registry that might be exonerations.