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Trial of Christopher Coleman begins

After six months of delays, and just days before the second anniversary of the crime, testimony began this morning in the triple murder trial of Christopher Coleman.

Coleman is charged with strangling his wife Sheri and their two young sons early on the morning of May 5, 2009, allegedly so he could marry his mistress - a high school friend of Sheri's - without running afoul of his employer's no-divorce policy. Coleman was the chief of security for Joyce Meyer Ministries at the time of the murders.

Coleman has pleaded not guilty to the murders, and remains jailed in Monroe County without bond. Prosecutor Kris Reitz is seeking the death penalty.

In an opening statement about 30 minutes, Reitz promised a comprehensive case involving nearly 40 witnesses. "This case is too important to leave anything out," he said, speaking directly to thejury of 10 women and two men. (Four alternates are all male.) "When all the evidence is in, I will ask you to find Chris Coleman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

"Reasonable doubt" was the focus of  defense attorney Bill Margulis' opening statement. "Be patient," he urged the jury. "When you look at all the evidence, some of it won't make sense."

Margulis is one of three attorneys representing Coleman. One of them, John O'Gara, has a history with prosecutor Reitz. They were adversaries in the 2005 trial of James Wiley, who was acquired on charges that he had murdered his wife Twila after discovering she had had an affair. 

The following is a recap of the first day of testimony.

Opening Statements

  • Prosecutor Reitz laid out a road map for the case. The prosecutors will prove, he says, that the murders were the end result of six months of planning that started when Coleman began an affair with Tara Lintz, Sheri Coleman's high school friend. Chris Coleman, Reitz said, went as far as to send threatening letters to himself in the mail and via e-mail. He also brought the exact brand of spray paint that was used to spray obscenities on the walls of the house in February 2009, and the handwriting matches Coleman's. Cell phone records show that he didn't drive straight home from the gym after asking Columbia police to check in on his family, Reitz said, and evidence will show that Sheri and the boys were dead long before Chris left for the gym around 5:45 a.m. on May 5th - and that a camera mounted a nearby house showed no one entering or leaving the property.
  • Margulis, who gave the opening statement for the defense, spoke of Chris as a loving father who was always looking for ways to spend more time with his family and had even started looking at other job opportunities to avoid the constant travel that was part of being the personal security guard for Joyce Meyer. Margulis did not deny that Coleman had an affair, but said Sheri and Chris were going to counseling and that things were improving. Just because those e-mail threats came from Chris Coleman's computer doesn't mean that he was the one to send them, Margulis said. Red spray paint is a very common household purchase. And Margulis argued that his handwriting and speech patterns are probably also similar to those in the threats and the spray-painted obscenities. Coleman was devastated by the deaths, Margulis said, and cooperated fully - even giving a six-hour video-taped statement that jurors will have a chance to view.

Prosecutors used Sheri Coleman's mother, Angela DeCicco, to establish that a crime had taken place - that is, that Sheri, Gavin and Garett had been alive and were now dead. She was followed by FBI visual information specialist Sharon Leach, who outlined her role in creating a scale model of the Coleman house that later witnesses used in demonstrations. 

Columbia Police Sgt. Jason Donjon was the second officer to answer Chris Coleman's welfare check call. The Colemans lived catty-corner to a Columbia police detective, Justin Barlow. When Chris Coleman could not reach Sheri when driving home from the gym that morning, he woke up Barlow and asked the detective to check on his family. Donjon heard Barlow inform dispatch what he was doing, and left from the Columbia police station to assist the detective.

  • Donjon and Barlow entered the house through an open window after no one answered the door after several attempts. As they were clearing the basement and first floor, Coleman arrived home and opened the garage. A third officer, Steven Patton, had also arrived on the scene, and told Coleman to stay outside. Patton then joined Donjon and Barlow inside. Barlow is expected to testify, as the security camera Chris Coleman installed after receiving threatening letters is on Barlow's house.
  • Donjon was the one to discover Sheri Coleman. Crime scene photos showed to the jury (prosecutor Reitz warned them, "Be prepared," before he clicked on the overhead projector) showed for the first time that she was naked when she was found. Donjon found her with her head dangling off the bed. He testified that her skin felt tough and thick and that the entire side of her body moved when he rolled her to try and look for a pulse. It was not a fresh body, Donjon told Reitz.
  • Also for the first time, the pictures showed that both Gavin and Garett had spray paint on their comforters. The symbols on Garett's could not be made out, but someone had sprayed an obscenity on Gavin's comforter.
  • Patton was the officer who stayed with Coleman when he arrived home. Prosecutors asked Patton several times if Coleman ever tried to go upstairs after he was told he couldn't. Patton said no. Patton was also the officer who investigated the threatening letter the Colemans received on January 2, 2009.

Paramedics Gary Hutchison and Jared Huch, were next. They testified that they checked for signs of  rigor mortis and that it appeared to have set in by the time they arrived on the scene. That led to the first point of contention of the day. On cross-examination, defense attorney Bill Margulis pointed out that a report Hutchison filed did not mention that he had checked for rigor mortis, and did not mention it when questioned by Major  Case Squad investigators. But two years later, Margulis said, Hutchison was now certan he had checked. It was just an oversight on my part, Hutchison said. "The case flustered me."

Sheri Coleman's family left the courtroom before the testimony of Deborah Brown von Nida, the supervisory investigator for the Madison County coroner's office. Von Nida helped with the case because the Monroe County coroner was not trained in a procedure to take liver temperatures.

  • Von Nida testified that she took so-called core temperatures from Sheri and Garett Coleman, but decided not to take one of Gavin Coleman because she did not want to disturb evidence. In addition to the spray-painted obscenity on Gavin's comforter, von Nida said she saw strands of long, dark hair wrapped around Gavin's arm. Prosecutors did not ask von Nida about the significance of the hair. Chris Coleman has blond hair. Sheri Coleman had long, dark hair.

Core temperatures play into the discussion of time of death, which could be central to the case. Prosecutors say it breaks Chris Coleman's alibi - that he could not have been at the gym at the time of the murders. Defense attorneys call the science too inexact - a point that came into stark relief with the day's last witness, forensic pathologist Dr. Raj Nanduri, who performed the autopsies.

  • Dr. Nanduri, while images from the autopsies were displayed on the screen, ("Don't look at this," a relative of Chris Coleman's could be overheard telling another relative. Many audience members also reacted strongly.) testified that ligature strangulation was the cause of death, a point that isn't disputed.
  • On cross examination, defense attorney James Stern asked Dr. Nanduri if anyone from law enforcement had asked her to estimate time of death. She responded that David Bivens with the Major Case Squad had, and that she was willing to give a range but could not provide an exact time. 
  • Time of death can be estimated by checking a body's core temperature - as Deborah von Nida did - and then using a formula that says body temperature goes down about a degree an hour from the average after death. But there are many factors that affect that scale, Dr. Nanduri said, including size, whether an air conditioner is on, whether a person is covered or naked. And she said she had no way of knowing what the core temperature of the victims was when they were killed.
  • The prosecution is planning to call, possibly as early as tomorrow, a pathologist from New York named Michael Baden. Baden is prepared to tell the court that based on information he received from the Major Case Squad - including paramedics Gary Hutchison and Jared Huch, who said they tested for rigor, and police Sgt. Jason Donjon who said the skin felt tough - that the murders could not have happened any later than 3 a.m. - almost three hours before Coleman left the house.
  • On further questioning from prosecutors, Dr. Nanduri says based on liver temperature alone, the crime could have happened six to eight hours before the core temperatures were taken, around 11:10 on May 5. Using the one degree per hour formula, that fits within Michael Baden's window. However, Dr. Nanduri said the range of that formula can go as high as 2.5 degrees per hour - which could give Coleman an alibi. Bottom line, defense attorneys were pointing out, the science is too uncertain.

Our earlier coverage:


Via reporter Rachel Lippmann, at 3:20 p.m.:

Several more people testified following the lunch recess including:

  1. Steve Patton, a Columbia Police Department officer and another of the first responders on the scene. Patton went in and checked the Coleman house following a radio call. He also investigated a threatening letter that had been received in the Coleman's mailbox back in January 2009.
  2. Gary Hutchison, a paramedic for Columbia EMS, who testified about the inclusion of testing for rigor mortis on his initial scene report.
  3. Debra Von Nida, a supervisory investigator for Madison county coroner's office, who explained that her office did not do a core temperature test on Gavin Coleman because they saw that he had long strands of dark hair in the crook of his elbow. Gavin was lying on his stomach and Von Nida did not want to disturb the scene by moving the body, an action deemed necessary to perform the test.

Updated 12:05 p.m. April 25:

Via reporter Rachel Lippmann:

  • The trial has just recessed for lunch. Between this morning's opening statements and the recess three people testified:
  1. Sheri Coleman's mother, Angela DeCicco
  2. Sharon Leach, a FBI visual information specialist, who testified about the creation of a three-dimensional model of the Coleman house to be used during the trial for demonstration purposes.
  3. Sgt. Jason Donjon of the Columbia Police Department - one of the first responders on the scene at the Coleman house.
  • Crime scene photos were shown to the jury during Donjon's testimony.

Opening statement recap via the Associated Press:

Prosecutors opened the trial of Christopher Coleman, accused of strangling his wife and two sons, by telling jurors the defendant spent months setting up the crime with threatening messages sent from his own work computer.

Monroe County State's Attorney Kris Reitz says the case will be a complicated one for jurors, involving as many as 40 witnesses. And Reitz contends the evidence will show Coleman lied when he insisted he was working out at the gym when his family was killed in their Columbia home in May 2009.

In his opening statement Monday, defense attorney Bill Margulis asked jurors to keep an open mind and said they'll find plenty of reasonable doubt about the prosecution's case.

Coleman has pleaded not guilty and remains jailed without bond.



Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.