WATERLOO, Ill. — A judge imposed a life sentence Monday for a former Marine and pastor's son convicted of strangling his wife and their two sons in their beds, opting against the death penalty in a state where capital punishment soon will be outlawed.
Circuit Judge Milton Wharton said justice would be better served if Christopher Coleman, 34, spent a lifetime behind bars, where he'd be forced to reflect daily on the crimes prosecutors say he committed to further an affair and keep a high-paying security job with a global ministry.
Wharton suggested he found crime-scene and autopsy photos shown to jurors distressing, noting Sheri Coleman, 31, and her two sons, ages 11 and 9, were found dead in their beds, which "should have been a place of safety."
An obscene phrase was seen spray-painted in red on one of the boys' bedding – vandalism jurors concluded Christopher Coleman staged to make the slayings look like the work of an intruder.
"The horrible nature of the crime cannot be diminished," Wharton said.
Jurors convicted Coleman last week on three first-degree murder charges and ruled him eligible for the death penalty. They were to hear testimony Monday from both sides over whether Coleman should face that fate or the only other option – life in prison without parole. But Coleman chose not to offer any witnesses on his behalf and cut short the hearing, putting his fate in Wharton's hands after deciding he didn't want to put his family through the emotional toll of testifying that his life was worth saving.
Such a hearing would have been moot anyway. Although prosecutors sought the death penalty, such a sentence would likely have been symbolic because capital punishment was abolished in Illinois in March. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has pledged to commute a death sentence given to anyone before the ban takes effect July 1.
To Coleman, "it all seemed to be a lot of effort at this stage that would have done a lot more harm than good," John O'Gara, one of Coleman's three attorneys, told reporters afterward. "Today's sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole ends a very sad chapter."
While Coleman's attorneys were satisfied that Wharton did not impose a death sentence, "there aren't any small victories here," O'Gara added. "All there is is tragedy."
Coleman and his family – his parents and two brothers – sat expressionless as Wharton announced the sentence. Coleman's only words publicly were a polite "Yes, sir" when Wharton told him of his appeal rights. Otherwise, he stood rigidly in front of the judge, his hands clasped behind his back as if still a Marine.
As deputies escorted him from the courtroom, Coleman glanced briefly at his family and saw one brother gesture for him to keep his chin up.
Sheri Coleman's family, who attended much of the trial and last Thursday called the guilty verdicts "justice" on the two-year anniversary of the killings, didn't attend Monday's sentencing.
Bill Margulis, another Coleman attorney, told reporters without elaborating the verdict would be appealed.
Prosecutors theorize Coleman killed his family on May 5, 2009, in the family's lakeside home in nearby Columbia 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 Missouri-based Joyce Meyer Ministries. His case, with its mix of religion, adultery and violence, has tantalized much of the St. Louis region.
Prosecutors argued Coleman spent months setting up the killings by sending himself threatening emails and he sprayed the crime scene with red paint to make it look like the killings were the work of a stalker critical of Meyer.
While acknowledging Coleman's affair, his attorneys argued there was no physical evidence directly linking him to the killings, and much of the testimony – including that involving comparisons of Coleman's writing samples and the graffiti – was unscientific and meaningless.
Coleman told police he left the house while his family was asleep to work out at a gym about 5 miles away on the morning of the killings and grew concerned when he could not reach them by telephone. Their bodies were found after he called police.
In sentencing Coleman, Wharton alluded to a case he faced "many, many years ago as a young judge" when he was asked to decide whether life support should be disconnected from a badly abused girl. Wharton said he opted then to keep the child attached to those machines "and prayed for a miracle, but to this date the miracle never came."
The girl became an adult, still in a vegetative state.
"It's a decision every day of my life that I think about," wondering if the ruling was right, Wharton said before turning to Coleman. "Somehow, I don't think I'll worry about this decision for the rest of my life."