Murder trial for evangelist's security head starts

AP News
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Posted: Apr 25, 2011 5:52 PM
Murder trial for evangelist's security head starts

A former Marine who was having an affair spent months sending himself threatening emails before strangling his wife and two sons and spraying the crime scene with red paint to make it look like they were killed by a stalker, a prosecutor told jurors at the opening of the man's trial Monday.

But a defense attorney for Christopher Coleman disputed what prosecutors have acknowledged is largely circumstantial evidence, saying his 34-year-old client experienced a "common type of marital problems" and the emails could have been sent by someone who knew his passwords and set him up.

Prosecutors claim Coleman killed his family because he feared his affair with his wife's longtime friend would cost him his $100,000-a-year job as the security chief for a Missouri-based ministry with global reach and travel perks. His case, with its mix of religion, adultery and violence, has tantalized much of the St. Louis region since he was arrested in May 2009 and has been so closely watched that court officials set up a lottery of sorts to dole out seats for the trial.

Coleman told police his wife, Sheri, and 9- and 11-year-old sons were asleep when he left the house to work out at a gym about five miles away on May 5, 2009, but he grew concerned when he could not reach them by telephone. Their bodies were found after he called police.

A pathologist, Raj Nanduri, testified Monday the victims died of ligature strangulation that authorities believe was a cord, evident in crime-scene and autopsy photos projected for jurors onto a large screen behind Coleman's defense table. Coleman and his family _ his parents and a brother seated in the gallery's first row _ did not look at the images, which included one showing the youngest victim face down and dead in bed, a vulgar phrase spray-painted onto his bedding.

Monroe County State's Attorney Kris Reitz, in his opening remarks, said witnesses would testify that Coleman's wife and sons died hours before their bodies were found and that the red spray paint used in the crime-scene graffiti was traceable to him.

Reitz said the deaths happened when he was months into a sexual relationship with a Florida woman who was his wife's friend. Coleman worked for Joyce Meyer, who "would have in fact fired an employee who had an adulterous affair," Reitz said.

"The evidence is that this is not a job the defendant wanted to lose," he said.

While the prosecutor told the 10-woman, two-man jury the trial would be complicated and involve testimony from as many as 40 witnesses, one of Coleman's three attorneys urged jurors to be open-minded.

"You're going to find a lot of reasonable doubt (about the prosecution's case) _ a lot of things in there that don't make sense," defense attorney Bill Margulis said.

Margulis acknowledged Coleman's affair with Tara Lintz and the fact that emails threatening Coleman's family may have been sent from his work laptop computer. But he said martial problems weren't uncommon and someone could have hacked into Coleman's computer to set him up as the suspect.

"Just because an email was created on his computer doesn't mean Chris wrote it," Margulis said.

He dismissed as "inconclusive" the prosecutor's claim that experts found Coleman's writing samples to be similar in style to the threatening emails and in handwriting to the crime-scene graffiti. He also described Coleman as "a wonderful father, very involved with his children" and said his client had been looking for another job that didn't require so much time away from home.

Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty, though that may be mainly symbolic since Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn abolished capital punishment in Illinois last month. Quinn has pledged to commute a death sentence given to anyone before the ban takes effect July 1.

Columbia police Sgt. Jason Donjon testified Monday he found Sheri Coleman and the boys' bodies after Coleman called a neighbor, who was a police officer, by cell phone and said he was worried because he could not reach his family. Donjon said Sheri Coleman showed no signs of life, her skin felt tough, and her neck and head were locked as he tried to turn her over _ a sign that rigor mortis, or a stiffening of the body after death, had set in.

It "was not like a recently deceased body," he testified before a packed courtroom.

Two ambulance workers testified they had the same observations after they were sent to the home and inspected the bodies for signs of life.

The onlookers included Tom Schwab, a 60-year-old retired utility worker who got to the courthouse about 4:30 a.m. Monday and was the first in line for one of the seats not given to reporters or relatives of the Coleman family. Only 50 seats were available.

"This just definitely fits the bill of being an intriguing case," said Schwab, who some 20 years ago served as foreman of a St. Louis-area jury that convicted a man of murder. "I just think everyone's anxious to get this going and get to the bottom of it. I just want to see how this all pans out."