WATERLOO • Jurors informally decided on a death sentence for Christopher Coleman, one said Monday, before the convicted killer cast his fate to a judge instead and received three life terms without possibility of parole.
The decision to waive a penalty decision from the jury that convicted him of first-degree murder was a surprise Monday morning that pushed his trial in court here to an early end on its 11th day.
Coleman, 34, found guilty last week of strangling his wife and two sons in their home in Columbia, Ill., ultimately would have ended up with a life sentence in any event.
Prosecutors persisted in seeking a death sentence even after the Legislature abolished capital punishment, effective July 1. Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to commute all earlier death sentences issued before then to life terms.
Prosecutors said the murder was the culmination of a plot to leave his wife, Sheri Coleman, to marry her onetime best friend, Tara Lintz, and avoid exposing adultery that could have threatened his job as bodyguard for televangelist Joyce Meyer.
One of the jurors, Kimberly Ferrari, said in an interview in her home in Pinckneyville, Ill., that she thinks the jurors were prepared to vote for death.
She also explained why it took the panel 15 hours over two days to deliver a guilty verdict that many observers in the Monroe County Courthouse figured would come more quickly.
Ferrari, a nurse, said all 12 believed Coleman had done it, but several were initially unwilling to find him guilty because the prosecution was built entirely on circumstantial evidence.
She said the jurors voted 8-4 in favor of "guilty" early in their deliberations Wednesday, and by that night it weakened to 7-5.
"Nothing solid or concrete, no murder weapon," said Ferrari, who said she voted for guilty throughout.
On Thursday, she said, jurors shifted to 9-3. What she described as the "ah-ha moment" was their agreement that dates listed on photographs on the cellphones of Coleman and Lintz showed deception.
Ferrari said time stamps showed that photos of the two in romantic poses had been taken as early as October 2008, in contradiction of testimony by Lintz that the affair began two months later.
The juror said the time stamps also showed that Coleman was deleting photos while police were interviewing him on the day of the murders. Ferrari said one of the jury holdouts pondered the picture dates and said, "Oh, my God." Once they agreed those dates were significant, she said, the vote shifted to 12-0.
"They all believed he did it," she explained. "They were just trying to figure it out."
Ferrari said one thing that surprised her was Lintz's decision to testify while wearing the promise ring she told the court Coleman had given her. "That was something," the juror said.
THE JUDGE DECIDES
Once Coleman opted to have the judge decide the punishment, the prosecution and defense went straight into closing arguments late Monday morning, without presenting witnesses who would have been calculated to mold the jury's view of Coleman. The jurors chose to remain in court as spectators.
State's Attorney Kris Reitz told Judge Milton Wharton that Coleman should be executed because of the "hateful, shocking evil" of the crime. "He felt them die," the prosecutor noted, given that the three were strangled with a ligature.
Defense lawyer John O'Gara acknowledged that public sentiment is strong, asking, "Can there be a more hated man right now than this one?" But he said the judge should find compassion despite the outcry.
Wharton called them back at 1 p.m., and Coleman arrived in a blue dress shirt and tie. He smiled at family in the spectators' gallery before sitting down. From that point, his eyes were fixed on the judge.
During the 20-minute hearing, Wharton told a story of being a young lawyer years ago, visiting the Menard Correctional Center, the Illinois maximum-security prison at Chester.
"I saw a lot of young men, age 19 and 20, but I came away with something else I saw that shocked me: I saw old men in wheelchairs, with canes and with beards. Those were the 'lifers,'" Wharton said. "A life sentence is most potent retribution.
"In reviewing this case, I cannot find that the defendant is a danger to society," the judge said. "He is no danger to prison. ... this defendant is possibly a danger to himself" and may possibly be endangered "by other inmates."
"The horrible nature of the crime cannot be diminished," Wharton said. "Look at the pictures of the wife and two kids, particularly the ones in their beds. That should be a place of safety."
The judge took note that the death penalty in Illinois is ending, and said, "A sentence of death may be expedient from the standpoint of the court, but I also believe it would compound the tragedy that the family already has experienced, and would make me engage in a symbolic sentence of death."
Jurors declined to be interviewed in Waterloo by reporters, and left town on buses headed for their homes in Perry County. They had been selected there for the Monroe County case because it is more distant from intense publicity about the case in the St. Louis area.
LAWYERS, POLICE REACT
O'Gara, the defense attorney, said the decision to waive the jury was Coleman's 'specific request," meant to save his family and the jurors from an essentially meaningless task.
"He didn't want to put his family through having to testify here on a very emotional day," O'Gara said. "He didn't want to put the jury through any more. He didn't want to put anybody through any more."
O'Gara said he was pleased the judge did not give Coleman the death penalty but declined to call it a 'small victory" when asked by a reporter.
"There aren't any small victories here," he said. "All there is, is tragedy."
Defense co-counsel William Margulis told reporters the case was "as tough as they come."
Columbia Police Chief Joe Edwards, whose officers found the bodies and led the investigation with help of the Major Case Squad and Illinois State Police, said he respected the judge's decision but would have preferred a capital sentence.
"If there ever is a case where the death penalty is appropriate, this is it," Edwards said. "There is no greater evil than murdering your wife and two children while they are sleeping in their beds."
The bodies of Sheri Coleman, 31, and the couple's two sons, Garett, 11, and Gavin, 9, were found May 5, 2009.
Prosecutors said Christopher Coleman had plotted the murders since November 2008, when he began a sexual relationship with Lintz, a cocktail waitress from Largo, Fla.
Coleman earned $100,000 a year as security chief for the Fenton-based Joyce Meyer Ministries. Testifying by video deposition in the trial, Meyer confirmed prosecutors' claims that if she had found out about his infidelity, he might have lost his employment.