Dana Holland and Christopher Coleman forged a friendship behind bars that has sustained them through years of doubt, exoneration and, at last, freedom.
By: Steve Mills, Chicago Tribune: December 20th, 2015
Dana Holland and Christopher Coleman became friends in a downstate prison cell where, through the iron bars and the nearby windows, they could see the Mississippi River and its suggestion of freedom.
There, the two men came to understand the contours of one another’s lives. Holland grasped the depths of Coleman’s depression. Coleman learned to appreciate Holland’s spirituality and his love of gospel music. Holland admired how Coleman played basketball under the basket, even though he was shorter than many of his opponents. Coleman was taken by how much Holland studied his convictions, poring over trial transcripts and other court documents.
Both had been in street gangs. Holland was serving 118 years on two cases, an attempted murder and a sexual assault. Coleman had been convicted of home invasion, sexual assault and armed robbery and was serving 60 years. Neither expected to get out until he was a much older man.
They knew, too, that they might never go free.
Over the time they shared a nearly 5-by-11-foot cell at the maximum-security Menard Correctional Center, the two grew to depend on each other. When one got down, as both so often did, the other lifted him up. When one got good news, he shared it with the other. They also knew when to give each other space, though that could be difficult in such close quarters.
Holland and Coleman were bound together by one more thing, though they did not know it when they began sharing a cell: They were both innocent.
They should have been enemies. Holland was a Gangster Disciple, Coleman a Vice Lord — members of rival gangs. But Holland grew up in Chicago and Coleman in Peoria, a distance that softened the tribal animosity they would have had to muster for one another.
Holland was raised on the South Side, the son of a Cook County Jail guard who eventually became a high school principal and who followed the Black Hebrew Israelites religious sect and raised her son a vegan. The second of nine children, he was brought up in a home so strict that his father would not let the children snap their fingers after rolling the dice in Monopoly. That, he believed, was too street.
When his parents split up, things changed. Holland began drinking and smoking marijuana. He dropped out of Carver High School in his sophomore year and got a warehouse job, but he also was spending a lot of time hanging out with the Gangster Disciples, who controlled his neighborhood.
In February 1993 he was arrested for the sexual assault of a 22-year-old woman, even though the victim initially said he was not her attacker. After Holland was charged with that crime, Chicago police connected him to the beating and slashing of a woman two weeks earlier. At trial, Holland testified that he was innocent and pleaded with an uncle who also was on trial for the attempted murder to clear him.
“This is my life,” Holland cried in the courtroom.
Holland was convicted. Two years later, at another trial, he was convicted of the rape.
Coleman’s childhood was more dire. The youngest of three children, he was raised in public housing in Peoria, about 170 miles southwest of Chicago. As he tells it, he swore allegiance to the Vice Lords when he was 11. To him it seemed the only choice; other members of his family had joined the gang before him. He was expelled from high school in 11th grade for selling marijuana. People called him Fats.
Coleman spent much of his time on the streets, and once was shot in a gang fight. He said he feared no one, a feeling he liked.
In 1994, Coleman and two other men were charged with a home invasion in which five women were terrorized. One of them was raped. Though he had an alibi, and though one of the men who pleaded guilty testified that Coleman was not involved, a jury convicted him. Before he was sentenced, Coleman asked for a new trial; at a hearing, the other participant testified that Coleman was not involved. The judge denied the request for a new trial and gave Coleman two 30-year terms, one to be served after the other. He was 21.
Soon both Holland and Coleman were being held at Menard, far from their homes, far from their families, far from anything they knew.
Holland remembers clearly the day he met Coleman. A jailhouse minister, the Chicagoan was preaching in the prison yard. Coleman was playing basketball. At the time, around 2002, Coleman had been at Menard for several years, Holland for about a year after stints at other prisons.
Holland was struck by how Coleman played the game. “He was basically being a general on the court,” he said.
Holland invited Coleman to Bible study. They began to talk. In time, they were friends. They asked guards if they could share a cell.
By then they understood prison culture and how to survive its violence. Both had renounced the gangs and become religious, a turn that earned them respect and protection. They also walked with confidence through the cell house and out in the yard, and they minded their own business; that protected them as well.
They learned that two young men in a prison cell is a fragile ecosystem that can easily be knocked out of its equilibrium. Holland and Coleman made it work, though, in spite of their differences. Holland is outgoing and chatty; Coleman is more reserved. Holland is optimistic, hopeful. He tends to see the best in people. Coleman is more skeptical, slower to accept someone into his circle.
They learned that love songs on the radio reminded inmates of what they were missing, that the holidays reminded them of the family they had not seen. They learned, too, that the guilty did not want to hear about anybody’s innocence. They just wanted to do their time.
Holland spent hours studying his case. He wrote to innocence projects seeking help. He reached out to witnesses who might have information. Coleman, in the meantime, watched TV programs about the stock market and bet canned summer sausages and other food in a cell house sports pool. He left his trial transcripts in a box; examining his case only reminded him that he was innocent and no one could see it. In a system inclined to finality, one that by nature doles out more losses than victories, Coleman had known only defeats. He tried to forget his case. It was the only way he could survive.
As close as he and Holland became, Coleman just could not bring himself to tell Holland that he, too, had been wrongly convicted.
Then Holland began to see progress. He persuaded Karen Daniel, an attorney at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, to take his case. Then he got the DNA testing that he believed would help prove his innocence and win him his freedom.
He shared every legal victory with Coleman, no matter how small, not knowing that his cellmate had a secret he was afraid to share. “I’m sitting there watching him doing that. It made me think,” Coleman recalled.
One day the two were sitting in their cell. Holland was going over his trial transcripts again, explaining to Coleman again the frailties of his convictions. Finally, Coleman could hold it in no longer.
I know what you’re talking about, he told Holland. I’m innocent too.
After that, Coleman rolled up his thin mattress in the morning to make a desk out of the metal slab underneath it. He pulled out his gray property box from under the bunk for a chair. He grabbed a pen and the typing paper that he and Holland bought at the prison commissary.
When Coleman had explained his case to Holland, Holland had known, almost instinctively, that his cellmate was innocent too.
“When you’re speaking about your innocence in such detail, it’s not like you’re making stuff up,” Holland said recently. “He had all these facts stored up. He knew how bad the case was. I believed him right away. Because I was innocent and I knew it could happen.”
Holland told Coleman to write letters to innocence projects and to lawyers who handle criminal appeals, anyone who might help him.
Coleman’s first draft was just a few pages. That is not enough, Holland told him. “I didn’t know what to write,” Coleman recalled. The next draft was six or seven pages. That is still not enough, Holland said.
Finally, Coleman wrote 27 pages, pouring out everything he knew about his case. He called into question the conduct of the police and prosecutors, fixing on key details, and he said the testimony of witnesses was not worthy of trust, and highlighted crucial inconsistencies.
Written by a man who went to prison reading at the level of a sixth-grader, the document pleaded for help winning his freedom.
“I am in dire need of assistances to prove my innocence,” he wrote at the end. “Someone really need to look into this case, and if they do they will unearth and discover the truth. Every statement in this synopsis is true and supported by records and documentation. I stand by it completely.”
Coleman typed it up and wrote a short dedication to his mother and grandmother, who he said had never stopped believing in him. Another inmate drew a picture of a man hunched over and shackled inside a prison cell for the cover. Coleman titled the document “A Synopsis From A Innocent Man.”
Then he returned to the stultifying routine of prison, and he waited.
From its eighth-floor offices in a building overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago, the Center on Wrongful Convictions had helped change the criminal justice system in Illinois. Daniel came to the center in 2000 after a stint at the state appellate defender’s office, the agency that represents indigent inmates in appeals. It was a time when Illinois’ criminal justice system, including its death penalty, was undergoing dramatic change.
For Daniel, the decision to take a case often turned on whether she could find what she called a “path to innocence,” a way to prove that a key piece of evidence was so wrong that a conviction could no longer stand, or to develop new evidence that so undermined a case that a conviction had to be set aside. Either way, the work frequently took years to complete. Among the first cases she took was Holland’s.
His sexual assault case was fairly straightforward. It turned largely on DNA, the forensic tool that had upended scores of convictions across the country and forever changed the way we view the criminal justice system. At Holland’s trial, a lab analyst had testified that there was too little semen to do DNA tests. By the time Daniel was involved, lab analysts determined that there was, in fact, enough evidence for testing.
When the DNA tests showed that the rape had been committed by Holland’s uncle, the same man Holland had accused of committing the attempted murder he was in prison for, his rape conviction was set aside. Once that conviction was dealt with, Daniel focused on his attempted murder conviction and she won that case too. Clutching a Bible as he walked free for the first time in a decade, Holland spoke to reporters.
Daniel was stunned by what he said: My friend is still in prison, Holland said of Coleman. And he is innocent too.
“I thought, ‘I need to check out that case.’ I felt a responsibility to honor that,” Daniel recalled.
Coleman’s case, however, was more complex. Several people had been convicted. Several other people were alleged to have been in on the crime. What’s more, the case was in Peoria, which made the investigation of it more geographically difficult for Daniel and the students who took on cases. Daniel looked at the case — read the court rulings and other records — and while she saw a path to innocence, it looked as though it would be a rough road.
To get there, she and the students would have to get people to admit that they had taken part in the crime.
“To go from the evidence that convicted him to innocence, there was a lot of work to do,” said Daniel, now the director of the center. “We had to find them. We had to persuade them to talk to us. We had to persuade them to go on the record about their criminal activity. That didn’t look easy to me.”
Other cases made demands on Daniel’s time, and years passed. But Daniel never forgot Coleman; Holland’s words when he was released rang true. Exonerated inmates know how much it takes to unravel a conviction, she thought. They do not suggest another inmate’s case lightly.
“That totally stuck with me — that, in this important moment in Dana’s life, he felt like he had to mention his friend,” Daniel recalled.
Coleman bided his time. Prison had taught him patience. Nothing came quickly. He waited, always hopeful.
Then, in March 2006, three years after that first letter, Daniel accepted Coleman’s case.
Her team got to work.
At 36, after more than 10 years in prison, Holland had to adjust to life outside it. He had to reacquaint himself with the son he had left behind as a small child, as well as other family members he had not seen. Indeed, some had given up on him, something he understood; after all, he was serving a 118-year sentence. He had to find work. And he had to find a place to live; he stayed with a sister at first, then with a brother. But he wanted his own home.
Coleman, meanwhile, waited, moving from prison to prison. Daniel and her team took up the tough work of investigating a conviction, trying first to understand how it had been put together, then seeing whether it withstood scrutiny. They reviewed the court records. They tracked down witnesses.
The case against Coleman fell apart slowly. Despite the pressure from Daniel and her team, prosecutors in Peoria continued to fight to preserve his conviction. At one court hearing, which stretched over six months in 2009 and 2010, five people who admitted taking part in the home invasion testified that Coleman had not been involved. It was a powerful presentation. Daniel had rarely marshaled so much evidence of innocence before.
In the fall of 2010, the judge issued his decision. Although he acknowledged that the evidence could point to Coleman’s innocence, he said it was not so powerful that it would have changed the result at a retrial, the standard he said he had to rely on to make his ruling.
“Is it possible that the Petitioner is actually innocent?” the judge wrote in his decision. “Yes, even the most efficacious court system in the world cannot achieve absolute truth. … Is the evidence offered at this hearing of such a conclusive character that it would probably change the result on retrial? No.”
Daniel sat in her office and wept. Losing meant she had to do one of the toughest parts of her job: She had to call her client with the bad news. This is not the end, she told Coleman. There is more we can do. But Daniel knew, and Coleman knew, too, that appealing the judge’s decision to a state appeals court and, if necessary, to the Illinois Supreme Court meant several more years in prison. He knew, too, that he might never get out. He felt the courts did not want to see the truth.
Coleman wrote to Holland and talked to him on the phone. Holland tried to buck him up against the disappointment he, too, had known.
Coleman lost in the Illinois Appellate Court and Daniel took his case to the Illinois Supreme Court, where, with Holland watching, she argued that the Peoria judge’s ruling and the appeals court’s decision to deny Coleman some relief was wrong. She also filed a clemency petition seeking a commutation of Coleman’s sentence.
Holland testified for his friend.
Indeed, Holland remained steadfast in his belief that Coleman was innocent. He gave out business cards to anyone who would take one. In big red letters, “Wrongfully Convicted Man” was written across the top, with a photo of Coleman below and a request for support.
In October 2013, three years after Coleman had lost his appeal in the trial court, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously reversed his conviction and ordered a new trial. It wrote that the judge’s decision had been “manifestly erroneous,” a strongly worded rebuke.
When Daniel called Coleman, this time with good news, he cried and whooped so loud that a guard asked if something was wrong.
Coleman was moved to the county jail in Peoria and, two days before Thanksgiving 2013, his family scraped together the money to post bond and get him released. It had been seven years since Daniel agreed to investigate the case. It had been nearly a decade since he had seen his former cellmate.
As he walked out of jail, his family, as well as Daniel and a former student who had worked on the case, were there to greet him.
Holland was there, too. He wrapped Coleman in a big embrace.
Not long after that, prosecutors decided not to retry Coleman. After so many years, he and Holland were both free of their cases.
On a cold and gray November afternoon, more than two decades after they met in the prison recreation yard, Coleman walked up the driveway at Holland’s low-slung home in a leafy neighborhood of south suburban Sauk Village. Holland came out and they hugged.
Coleman greeted and teased Holland’s children, who called him Uncle Chris. Holland just beamed.
“What’s up, my man?” Coleman said.
Now 47, Holland is solidly built, like an athlete. He has a thin mustache under his bald dome. He speaks with great enthusiasm, as if he is preaching. Coleman is 41, soft-spoken, thickset, and he keeps his hair cut short. Holland treats Coleman like a younger brother. He still has a file about Coleman’s case, a remnant from when he pushed Daniel to take the case. Coleman often calls Holland “Brother.”
Sitting at Holland’s kitchen table, they talked about how difficult life in prison was, but also how they have struggled outside prison. One day not long after he was set free, Holland went outside before dawn to lie on the hood of his car and gaze at the sky. Just because he could. During a storm shortly after his release, Coleman stood outside in the rain. No guard was there to tell him what not to do.
“I wanted to be outside,” Coleman said, shaking his head and laughing as if still marveling at his behavior. “I was just enjoying rain.”
Holland was granted a certificate of innocence in court, which qualified him for $138,000 in compensation from the state. He filed a federal lawsuit against Chicago police, but it was dismissed in 2009, with the judge saying he had not proved that officers acted with malice, a requirement under the law.
Holland had one son when he went to prison and had four more after he was released. Leaving prison in his mid-30s, he felt he had to squeeze in a lot of life in a hurry. He has worked as a house painter and done electrical work, and his wife works as a teacher’s aide. He has had an array of health problems and recently had surgery on his neck. He has struggled financially as well. In 2013, he filed for bankruptcy.
“It’s been a challenge,” he said.
Still, he is unfailingly upbeat, and is always grateful that he is not behind bars. On Thursdays he sometimes goes to Kankakee County Jail to meet with inmates. The ministering he did at Menard, with some of the state’s toughest inmates, continues with others headed to prison.
When Coleman got out, Holland provided a model for re-entering the outside world and, like an older brother, gave Coleman advice based on his decade of freedom. Sit down and soak it in, he said. Don’t go rushing around. Don’t get too used to the attention you’re getting, because it’s going to go away. Keep God close. Find a good lawyer for your lawsuit. And be careful: People will want your money.
Coleman has tried to follow Holland’s advice. He had gotten married in 2010, before he was released, but his marriage has been rocky. He sometimes talks to the still-married Holland about it. He said living with someone in the free world has been a big adjustment.
“I still haven’t figured it out,” he said.
He had two sets of twins before he was arrested and went to prison. Now he has five grandchildren and another on the way.
He has worked for much of the time since he has been free and still hopes to start a real estate business. A financial stake — a little more than $220,000 from the state for his wrongful conviction — has been delayed, however, because of the state budget impasse.
In some ways, the adjustment has not been as hard as he heard from Holland and others. Coleman always envisioned himself as a free man, so when he finally was, it did not seem strange. Even in his lowest moments, he said, he saw himself walking out of prison.
“And I did,” he said, laughing.