From Ted Bundy to Charles Finch: James Coleman reflects on career in criminal law



James Coleman’s extensive career in criminal law and wrongful convictions has led him to represent clients such as members of the Duke men’s lacrosse team and Ted Bundy.

Coleman, John S. Bradway professor of the practice of law, has taught at Duke Law School for more than 20 years, starting as an adjunct professor and joining the faculty full-time in 1996. Today he specializes in criminal law and is a co-director of Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which began working in 2007 and has already exonerated seven men. 

Since he was in private practice, Coleman has been counsel in controversial cases. At his law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, he represented Ted Bundy, an infamous serial rapist who murdered more than 30 women, to seek a stay of his death warrant.

His previous success in obtaining stays of execution for Stephen Todd Booker made him the ideal candidate for the job. Coleman and his co-counsel Polly Nelson, a recent law school graduate, were able to assure Bundy three extensions before he received the death penalty. Still, Coleman expresses remorse over the final verdict. 

“I was deeply disappointed in the indifference the federal court showed in reviewing Ted’s case,” he wrote in an email. “The [U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit] allowed the state of Florida to execute him despite very serious violations of the Constitution.” 

Before trial, principal witnesses in Bundy’s and Booker’s cases were put into a trance to access repressed memories of alleged witnesses, Coleman explained. 

“Today, it would be accepted as indisputable that the eyewitness identifications in the two cases were highly unreliable and tainted by highly suggestive pretrial processes,” Coleman wrote.

Closer to home, he undertook the defense of the Duke men’s lacrosse team in 2006, in which Crystal Mangum, a North Carolina Central University student, accused three members of the men’s lacrosse team of rape. Despite the racial tension underlying the case, Coleman still chose to represent the men. 

“My focus in the lacrosse case was to determine the truth, based on the facts. Race was not a consideration in any way,” he wrote. “If I can convince people who ordinarily ignore the criminal justice system that continuing to do so is a threat to all of us, I feel I have advanced justice. The fact that the Duke students were at risk of being wrongfully convicted is what motivated me.” 

Presently, Coleman has dedicated himself to the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, alongside co-directors Theresa Newman, Charles S. Rhyne clinical professor of law, and Jamie Lau, clinical professor of law. Duke Law students often assist in casework at the clinic, and Coleman offers multiple courses dedicated to further research. 

“We tell our students that when we make a commitment to investigate a possible wrongful conviction, we never give up if there is any slim chance available to convince a prosecutor or judge that our client suffered a miscarriage of justice,” he wrote. “I am not influenced by the public, prosecutors, law enforcement officials or judges believing our client is guilty if we think there is a chance he is not.”

In one case with the clinic, Coleman was able to get a conviction overturned when he and his legal team discovered absent information from a police report.

Law enforcement accused Kalvin Michael Smith of beating Jill Marker, a Winston-Salem store staffer, to the point of inducing blindness and a coma in December 1995. However, a subsequent investigation in the late 2000s brought the case back into the limelight when an officer’s 2008 affidavit contradicted an official police report drafted following the attack. 

Coleman noted these discrepancies, and eventually the officer admitted that the affidavit was flawed. As a result of Coleman’s diligence, the case quickly unraveled, and Smith soon obtained justice. 

Still, Coleman views it as a fundamental problem that Smith spent nearly 20 years behind bars and received no compensation for this gross error. Smith had difficulty adjusting to life in prison and now has trouble as a freed man.

“They just let him out of prison with a conviction and the disabilities that go along with that,” Coleman told the Greensboro News & Record.

Coleman recently made headlines for his work in getting Charles Ray Finch’s conviction overturned. Finch was found guilty in 1976 of killing Richard Linwood Holloman, a local gas station owner, in Wilson County, NC. He was finally released in June, thanks to Coleman’s 18 years on the case. 

Despite this success, Coleman argued that more substantial repairs to the criminal justice system are needed to ensure equity in the United States. After all, Finch was freed after 43 long years. Across the nation, many communities still have not found justice, though some reforms bring gradual improvements, like the First Step Act and the restoration of voting rights to felons in Florida.

“We are in a position to make improvements, but the system is so broken [that] the outcome is not obvious,” he wrote. “Race remains a major factor. Until we admit that fact and have an honest discussion about race, everything else is putting band-aids on wounds that require major surgery.”


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