In the early morning hours of August 22, 1994, several men broke into a house in Peoria, Illinois, where they demanded money and terrorized the five women living there. One, who was 17, was raped and all of them beaten.
In the confusion, someone managed to call the police. When the officers arrived, some of the men escaped, but two, James Coats and Robert Nixon, were arrested. Coats was found in the backyard and Nixon was inside the house. The home invasion was similar to other attacks during the previous 11 days, including one an hour earlier about five miles away.
An anonymous telephone call to Crimestoppers shortly after the first robbery reported that 20-year-old Christopher Coleman was seen carrying a stereo into a nearby public housing project apartment.
Coleman was quickly arrested. Coats and Nixon said they weren’t involved in the crime. Coats said he had gone to the house with a friend and was forced inside at gunpoint when the robbers arrived just as he was arriving. Nixon said he had been there to visit a friend and was just leaving when police arrived.
Coleman was charged with home invasion, aggravated criminal sexual assault, robbery and burglary after one of the residents of the home, a 17-year-old woman whose twin sister was raped, identified him in a photographic lineup.
Coleman went on trial before a jury in Peoria County Circuit Court in the spring of 1995. One of the victims, 45-year-old Bertha Miller, testified that although she didn’t see Coleman’s face, she recognized his voice because she had known him from the neighborhood since he was a child and because he had a distinctive limp. The 17-year-old victim said she recognized Coleman as a neighborhood resident nicknamed “Fats” when he took off his mask. The identification was suspect because the woman had identified two other men as being involved in the crime, but charges had been dismissed against both when evidence showed they were not involved.
A 12-year-old boy, Anthony Brooks, who was prosecuted as a juvenile, testified that Coleman had asked him to be the lookout for the robbers that night. Brooks implicated Coleman in two other home invasions, but charges in those cases were dismissed. Two other men whom Brooks said were involved were arrested, but both were freed.
Nixon, who pled guilty and was sentenced to 12 years in prison, testified for the defense that Coleman was not involved. Coleman testified that at the time of the crime he was with his girlfriend and another woman, both of whom took the stand and corroborated his alibi. On April 6, 1995, the jury convicted Coleman 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 one of the admitted participants in the crime—Coats, who pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in prison—testified, as Nixon had, that Coleman had not been involved in the crime.
Judge Robert Barnes denied the motion and on August 4, 1995, sentenced Coleman to 60 years in prison—two consecutive terms of 30 years each. The conviction was affirmed by the Illinois Appellate Court in 1997. Coleman next filed a 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 share a cell with Dana Holland
, a client of Karen L. Daniel, a staff attorney at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. Holland was exonerated in 2003, after which, at his behest, Daniel and a team of Northwestern law students began looking into Coleman’s case. In 2009, Daniel and her students filed another 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 was not involved. In addition, Brooks recanted, and admitted that he had lied when he implicated Coleman. Brooks said he was not the lookout for the others and in fact was not involved in the crime at all.
In 2011, Judge Brandt denied Coleman a new trial. Brandt said that while it was possible that Coleman was innocent, the new evidence was not of “such a conclusive character that it would probably change the result on retrial.” In 2011, the Illinois Appellate Court upheld Brandt’s decision, calling his opinion “well-reasoned.”
On October 3, 2013, however, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed and remanded the case. The Supreme Court ruled that in light of the “compelling evidence” of Coleman’s innocence, the trial court’s denial of relief had been “manifestly erroneous.”
Coleman was released on bond on November 26, 2013 and on March 13, 2014, the prosecution dismissed the charges. In March 2015, a Peoria County judge declared Coleman factually innocent.
—Rob Warden and Maurice Possley