ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANT ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE
Susan K. Carpenter Karen M. Freeman-Wilson
Public Defender of Indiana Attorney General of Indiana
Kathleen Cleary Christopher L. Lafuse
Deputy Public Defender Deputy Attorney General
Robert E. Lancaster
Special Assistant to the
SUPREME COURT OF INDIANA
ALTON COLEMAN, ) ) Appellant (Defendant Below ), ) ) v. ) No. 45S00-9203-PD-158 ) STATE OF INDIANA, ) ) Appellee (Plaintiff Below ). )
December 29, 2000
On April 11, 1986, a jury found Alton Coleman guilty of murder, attempted
murder and child molesting. Coleman and a companion lured two young girls
into a wooded area, and bound and gagged them. Coleman v. State,
558 N.E.2d 1059, 1060 (Ind. 1990) (Coleman I). They stomped and strangled
the seven-year-old child to death after she began crying. They strangled and
sexually brutalized the nine-year-old and left her for dead, though she survived.
Id. Following the jurys recommendation, the court sentenced Coleman to death.
We affirmed on direct appeal. Id. Subsequently, we affirmed the denial
of Colemans petition for post-conviction relief. Coleman v. State, 703 N.E.2d 1022
(Ind. 1998) (Coleman II).
The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari, Coleman v. Indiana, 120 S.Ct. 1717 (2000),
and remanded to this Court for reconsideration in light of Williams, 120 S.Ct.
1495, in which Williams claimed, as does Coleman, ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC).
Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1499.
In Williams, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Virginia Supreme Court and vacated Williams death sentence because Williams trial counsel failed to adequately investigate and present mitigating circumstances during the penalty phase of the trial. Id. at 1516. Applying the two-part IAC test established in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court held that this failure amounted to constitutionally deficient performance under the Sixth Amendment, and also prejudiced the defense to the point of depriving Williams of a fair trial with a reliable result. Id. at 1511, 1515.
The Williams opinion clarified the Courts earlier decision in Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506
U.S. 364 (1993), emphasizing that Lockhart did not modify the two-pronged Strickland analysis
that focuses on (1) deficient performance by counsel and (2) resulting prejudice.
Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1512. In Lockhart, the defendant sought relief based
on his attorneys failure to make an objection at his sentencing proceeding.
Lockhart, 506 U.S. at 366. The objection was sustainable under case law
at the time of the proceeding, but that law was later overruled.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant the defendant a windfall based on
fortuitous timing, and held that he had suffered no prejudice within the meaning
of Strickland because the sentencing result was neither unreliable nor fundamentally unfair.
Id. This set of circumstances was inapplicable in Williams, 120 S.Ct. at
1513, and it is similarly inapplicable here.
The Williams Court clarified that the focal concern in Lockhart, i.e. whether the result of the proceeding was fundamentally fair, is not a discrete third prong of the IAC analysis. Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1512. Rather, it enters into the determination of whether the likelihood of a different outcome qualifies as prejudice in the Strickland sense. Id.
In his petition for post-conviction relief, Coleman claimed ineffective assistance by both his
trial and his appellate counsel. Coleman II, 703 N.E.2d at 1026.
We rejected these claims, citing and applying the two-prong Strickland standard but
also referring to the caveat in Lockhart that a different outcome but for
counsels error will not constitute prejudice if the ultimate result reached was fair
and reliable. Id. at 1028 (citations omitted). We now revisit the
IAC issues raised by Coleman, applying the two-prong Strickland standard based on the
most recent guidance provided in Williams. Our holdings on all other issues
remain the same, and they stand.
A. Failure to Investigate and Present Mitigating Evidence at the Penalty and Sentencing Phase.
Coleman argues that his lawyer was ineffective in failing to present potentially
mitigating evidence related to his troubled childhood environment and to his mental illness
and personality disorder. (Appellant Remand Br. at 11-14.) On the latter
issue, Coleman argues that he was prejudiced by his counsels failure to present
evidence of his personality disorder and brain dysfunction. (Id. at 13-14.)
The post-conviction court, however, after hearing extensive evidence on both sides of the
issue, found that Coleman does not suffer from either disorder. Coleman II,
703 N.E.2d at 1032, (P-C.R. at 1744-45). Applying a pure Strickland analysis,
the post-conviction court concluded that, had this evidence been presented, it would not
have made a difference to the outcome of the trial or sentencing.
Coleman II, 703 N.E.2d at 1032, (P-C.R. at 1744). We agree that
Coleman suffered no prejudice under Strickland from his counsels failure to argue mental
defect or personality disorder as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
Colemans claim rests, then, on the mitigating evidence he offered at the post-conviction
proceeding relating to his troubled childhood. As noted in
Coleman II, 703
N.E.2d at 1031, this court has consistently held that evidence of a difficult
childhood warrants little, if any, mitigating weight. See Peterson v. State, 674
N.E.2d 528, 543 (Ind. 1996) (mitigating weight warranted by a difficult childhood is
in the low range), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 1078 (1998); Loveless v. State,
642 N.E.2d 974, 977 (Ind. 1994) (some such evidence is occasionally declared not
mitigating at all).
Nonetheless, it is certainly true that evidence about the defendants background and character
is relevant because of the belief, long held by this society, that defendants
who commit criminal acts that are attributable to a disadvantaged background, or to
emotional and mental problems, may be less culpable than defendants who have no
such excuse. Penry v. Lynaugh, 492 U.S. 302, 319 (1989) (quoting California
v. Brown, 479 U.S. 538, 545 (1987) (OConnor, J. concurring)). Childhood abuse
and privation may, along with other mitigators, influence the jurys appraisal of 
moral culpability. Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1515.
Unlike Colemans claim of mental illness and personality disorder, we have no findings
of fact from the post-conviction court regarding the evidence Coleman offered about the
circumstances of his youth. At the post-conviction proceeding, Coleman offered testimony, inter
alia, that his mother was a gambler and a prostitute who starved, beat
& hustled her children. (P-C.R. at 3683, 3793-94.) Coleman spent most
of his childhood in conditions of squalor, living with a grandmother who practiced
voodoo and who told Coleman that his mother had discarded him in a
trash can when he was born. (P-C.R. at 3717, 3772, 3681.)
The grandmother verbally vilified and physically beat Coleman. (P-C.R. at 3760, 3684.)
She addressed him by his widely-known nickname Pissy because Coleman
had bedwetting problems through his early teens. (P-C.R. at 3684.) In
summary, Coleman proffered evidence that he grew up neglected and abused.
We cannot effectively evaluate the credibility of this evidence from a cold record.
We therefore assume its truth for purposes of analysis, to determine whether
a remand for factual findings is necessary.
We begin with the second prong of Strickland, the issue of prejudice.
The focus of this inquiry is whether, had Colemans counsel offered evidence of
Colemans troubled childhood at the penalty phase of the trial, there is a
reasonable probability that the result would have been different, i.e., that Coleman would
have avoided a death sentence.
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 695. We
look to the factual circumstances in Williams for guidance in our assessment.
Omitted Mitigating Evidence. In Williams, counsel failed to present evidence
that Williams parents had been imprisoned for the criminal neglect of Williams and his siblings, that Williams had been severely and repeatedly beaten by his father, that he had been committed to the custody of the social services bureau for two years during his parents incarceration (including one stint in an abusive foster home), and then, after his parents were released from prison, had been returned to his parents custody.
Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1514. In addition, Williams was borderline mentally retarded
and did not advance beyond the sixth grade in school. Id.
Williams counsel also failed to offer prison records and credible testimony showing that
Williams thrived in a structured prison environment. Id.
Coleman, by contrast, has offered no evidence that he would be a model
prisoner. In fact, he was charged with raping another inmate, and convicted
of the lesser offense of battery, while he was incarcerated in 1976.
(T.R. at 2620.) Nor has Coleman offered evidence of retardation. He
attended school through the ninth grade, (P-C.R. at 4121), and in a competency
hearing held prior to his trial, two court-appointed psychiatrists found Coleman to be
above average in intelligence, (T.R. at 2631.) The only omitted mitigation evidence
that Coleman offers is that he, like Williams, suffered a childhood filled with
abuse and privation. Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1515; Coleman II, 703 N.E.2d
Sentencing Evidence Presented. In Williams, the defendant struck his victim with a
mattock and took a small sum of money from the victims wallet after
the victim refused Williams loan request. Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1499.
Williams was convicted and sentenced to death after he spontaneously confessed to
the murder, which had been written off as a death from blood alcohol
poisoning. Id. Williams expressed remorse, and cooperated with the police.
Id. Unlike Williams, Coleman did not confess, did not express regret, and
did not cooperate in the investigation.
In both Williams and Coleman, the State offered evidence of the defendants other
crimes. Williams had previously committed armed robbery, burglary, grand larceny, arson, two
auto thefts, and two violent assaults on elderly victims. Williams, 120 S.Ct.
at 1500. Colemans sentencing court similarly noted Colemans extensive record of violent
criminal activity. This included convictions for robbery and battery, and pending charges
for rape, child molesting, two kidnappings, multiple robberies and burglaries, three assaults, two
attempted murders, and seven murders. (T.R. at 2614, 2621.) Also, unlike
in Williams, Coleman had two prior murder convictions. (T.R. at 2419-20.)
As mitigating evidence, Williams counsel primarily emphasized that Williams had confessed and cooperated.
Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1500. However, counsel then inexplicably conceded in
closing argument that it was difficult to find a reason why the jury
should spare Williams life. Id.
Colemans counsel presented no mitigating evidence, but relied instead on a general religious
and moral argument against the death penalty and a request for mercy.
(T.R. at 2522, 2570-71.) Colemans own statement at his sentencing hearing
focused on the fairness of his trial, and ended with a request for
mercy. (T.R. at 2582-87.)
Totality of the Evidence. The dispositive question here, as in Williams, is
what effect the totality of the omitted mitigation evidence would have had on
Colemans sentence. Williams, 120 S.Ct. at 1515. In Williams, the U.S.
Supreme Court noted that [t]he circumstances recited in [Williams] several confessions are consistent
with the view that in each case his violent behavior was a compulsive
reaction rather than the product of cold-blooded premeditation. Williams, 120 S.Ct. at
1515-16. Colemans actions tell a different story. He and his companion
lured two young girls into the woods to inflict egregious harm upon the
children for their own sexual pleasure. Coleman neither confessed nor expressed regret
for this predatory attack. Besides having committed a particularly atrocious crime, Coleman
faced aggravating factors not present in Williams: two prior capital murder convictions.
Turning to the omitted mitigators, counsel in Williams could have pointed to three
factors: childhood abuse and neglect, borderline mental retardation, and a record of
successful incarceration. Coleman offers only one additional mitigator: a difficult childhood.
Because Williams turned himself in, alerting police to a crime they otherwise would
never have discovered, Williams 120 S.Ct. at 1515, Williams presented a much closer
sentencing decision based on the original evidence presented. It is unsurprising, then,
that when the Williams post-conviction judge (who had imposed the original sentence) considered
the three omitted mitigating factors, that judge concluded that it was reasonably probable
that this information would have tipped the scales against a death sentence.
Here, with a predatory and unrepentant defendant who had two prior capital murder
convictions and no mitigating circumstances, the sentencing decision was much more clear-cut.
The jury returned its recommendation in favor of the death penalty within two
hours, (T.R. at 2539), and the trial court discussed at length the numerous
compelling aggravators and lack of mitigating circumstances, (T.R. at 2618-37).
Taking into consideration all the evidence, both presented and omitted, and our previous
holdings that a difficult childhood carries little mitigating weight, we conclude that it
is extremely unlikely that the sentencing result would have been different had Colemans
trial counsel presented credible evidence of Colemans childhood abuse and neglect. Because
we find no reasonable probability that Coleman would have avoided a death sentence
based on the omitted evidence, Colemans claim of IAC at the penalty and
sentencing phase of his trial fails under the second prong of Strickland.
B. Mystery Hairs. Colemans trial counsel failed to present evidence that two hairs
in a rape kit containing evidence collected from one victim belonged to neither
Coleman nor his co-defendant. Coleman II, 703 N.E.2d at 1028. We
concluded in Coleman II that, although there was no apparent strategic reason for
not presenting this evidence, it did not constitute prejudice in the Strickland sense
because of the magnitude of other evidence pointing to Colemans guilt. Id.
We also cited Lockhart and found that the failure did not render
Colemans conviction unfair or unreliable. Id. at 1028-29. Under Strickland alone,
we continue to hold that there was no reasonable probability that presentation of
this evidence would have changed the result of the proceeding.
C. Other Claims. Coleman offers no argument on remand in support of his
other claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. We take our earlier
decisions on these contentions to be unaffected by the remand order, as his
present lawyers apparently do.