Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Alton Coleman & Debra Brown: Odyssey of Mayhem

Six Thousand Days

Alton Coleman
Alton Coleman
Alton Coleman spent more than 6,000 days on death row in Ohios Mansfield Correctional Institution and used nearly every means available to save his life.

Mansfield Correctional Institution
Mansfiled Correctional Institution

During his more than 16 years as a condemned prisoner, Coleman was described by prison officials as a model inmate who enjoyed the media attention his crime spree and status as one of the first Ohio inmates in decades to realistically face the executioner. He particularly enjoyed speaking to female reporters, and often tried to use his "celebrity" status to curry favors such as girlie magazines and money for the commissary from those who sought to interview him.

The appeals process for capital crimes is lengthy, even when the condemned inmate forgoes his or her right of appeal. Under Ohio law, the first review of a conviction with a death penalty specification is a "direct appeal" that examines the trial record to ensure there were no errors leading to an incorrect verdict and sentence. This direct appeal involves a review by the trial court and the state Supreme Court. Depending on the date of the conviction, as was the case for Coleman, an intermediate state appeals court also reviews a case on direct appeal.

Coleman's direct appeal began shortly after his 1985 conviction, but was not concluded until September 1989.

Alton Coleman's next appeal was a "post-conviction" review, which looks at the case to determine if any errors outside the trial record resulted in a violation of his state or federal Constitutional rights or to an incorrect verdict and sentence. His post-conviction review motion was filed in September 1990 with the trial court in Hamilton County, Ohio. The Ohio Supreme Court rejected his post-conviction appeal more than three years later.

Ohio capital defendants are given the opportunity for a third state appeal, a so-called "Murnahan Appeal," named after the inmate who brought the first action of this type. In a Murnahan Appeal, the inmate challenges the effectiveness of the lawyers who handled the previous state appellate actions. Effectiveness of trial counsel is examined in the post-conviction review.

Coleman's Murnahan Appeal was rejected six months after it was filed, on August 3, 1994 -- some 10 years after he was first indicted for the crimes for which he was convicted.

Having run out of state appeals, Coleman turned to the federal judiciary for relief. He filed a habeas corpus action -- a claim alleging that his federal Constitutional rights had been violated -- in December 1994 that the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati rejected in February 1998.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals received Coleman's notice of appeal of the lower court ruling in May 1998 and for the next two years, the state and the prisoner filed briefs with the appellate court. On December 5, 2000, more than 15 years after his conviction, the two sides squared off in oral arguments before a three-judge panel. Those judges rejected Coleman's habeas petition in March 2001.

On October 15, 2001 the United States Supreme Court denied Coleman's request to review the lower federal court rulings. The way was clear for the Ohio Supreme Court to set an execution date, which it did, choosing April 26, 2002.

Coleman was not out of procedural means to escape execution, however. Once the high court sets an execution date, the state clemency process begins. During his clemency hearing before the Ohio Parole Board -- which can recommend clemency to the Governor -- Coleman's attorneys submitted an apology of sorts from the killer and tried to convince the board that Alton was mentally incompetent.

Governor Bob Taft
Governor Bob Taft
Their pleas were rejected, and the Parole Board did not recommend that Governor Bob Taft grant Coleman clemency.

When Taft announced that he would not spare the killer, Coleman quickly filed suit in federal court, alleging that the state's clemency process was flawed. That suit was handily rejected by both the district and appeals courts.

In the days leading up to April 26, Coleman's attorneys repeatedly petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court with various arguments as to why Coleman should not die. In the last two weeks of his life, Coleman sent six unsuccessful petitions to the High Court, all of which were rejected without comment.

That Court, like so many others, saw no reason why Alton Coleman, who killed so many people without a second thought, should be allowed to live.

Their thoughts were perhaps best summed up by Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Rich Niehaus, who sentenced Coleman to death.

"I sentenced him and knowing this day has come, well, I got a queasy feeling, " Niehaus said on the day Coleman paid for his crimes. "But if there was anyone who is Exhibit 1 in an argument for the death penalty, it was Alton Coleman."

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