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State v. Coleman

Supreme Court of Maine

March 22, 2018


          Argued: November 15, 2017

          Penobscot County Unified Criminal Docket docket number CR-2014-4662

          Jeremy Pratt, Esq. (orally), and Ellen Simmons, Esq., Camden, and Logan E. Perkins, Esq., Perkins Law Office, Belfast, for appellant Keith Coleman

          Janet T. Mills, Attorney General, and Donald W. Macomber, Asst. Atty. Gen. (orally), Office of the Attorney General, Augusta, for appellee State of Maine


          MEAD, J.

         [¶1] Keith Coleman appeals from a judgment of conviction for three counts of murder, 17-A M.R.S. § 2Ol(1)(A) (2017), and one of gross sexual assault (Class A), 17-A M.R.S. § 253(1)(C) (2017), entered by the trial court (Penobscot County, A. Murray, J.) following a jury trial; he also appeals his sentences of life imprisonment on each of the murder counts. See 15 M.R.S. §§ 2151, 2152 (2017); M.R. App. P. 20 (Tower 2016).[1] Coleman argues that the court (1) abused its discretion by limiting his cross-examination of the State's Chief Medical Examiner, (2) clearly erred by finding that the State had sufficiently established the chain of custody of the sexual assault kit used during the autopsy of one of the victims, and (3) applied an incorrect standard of proof and abused its discretion in determining the facts considered at sentencing. Coleman also asserts that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury's guilty verdict on the gross sexual assault charge and that the State committed prosecutorial misconduct in its opening statement. Although we conclude that the court abused its discretion by foreclosing Coleman's cross-examination of the Chief Medical Examiner concerning his termination from his position as Chief Medical Examiner in Massachusetts, the error was harmless in the face of the overwhelming evidence of Coleman's guilt. We are unpersuaded by the remainder of his arguments and affirm the judgment and sentences.

         I. FACTS

         [¶2] "When viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict, the record supports the following facts." State v. Diana, 2014 ME 45, ¶ 2, 89 A.3d 132 (alteration omitted) (quotation marks omitted). The bodies of an eight-year-old girl, her ten-year-old brother, and the children's mother were found in their home in Garland on the evening of December 20, 2014. Keith Coleman, the mother's on-and-off boyfriend of a few years, had been living with the victims in their home for about a year prior to their deaths but was absent from the home when their bodies were discovered.

         [¶3] By all reports, Coleman's and the mother's relationship was a tumultuous one, plagued by incidents of Coleman's physical abuse of the mother. Shortly before the deaths, the mother told Coleman that he needed to deal with his drinking or move out; she was also considering reconciling with her daughter's father. Coleman was very upset by this situation and told a coworker, on three different occasions, that he "wouldn't have a problem with killing them all."

         [¶4] The children were last seen on December 19, 2014, as they left school on the final day of classes before Christmas vacation. On the same day, the mother made her last known communication in a text message to her aunt concerning a fight she and Coleman had that day. On the morning of December 20, shortly after 7:00 a.m., Coleman drove away from the home, then returned about five to ten minutes later, and left by 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. in the family's tan minivan. Coleman stopped at a local store for beer and cigarette rolling papers before driving to Bangor to return a remote-control car at a store, a gift he had intended to give to the son. Coleman later arranged, via direct messaging from one of his Facebook accounts, to meet up with friends in Bucksport. While messaging with his friends in Bucksport, he sent another set of Facebook messages, telling another friend that he was "[o]n the run for capital murder" and asking "[c]ould you send me anything to get me to the hood."

         [¶5] During the afternoon of December 20, after repeated failed attempts to reach the mother, the aunt whom the mother had texted the previous day asked another niece to go to the home and check on the mother and the children. At around 9:00 p.m., the niece and a number of other family members arrived at the home, broke through the locked front door, and discovered the mother's body in one bedroom and the daughter's body in another; the daughter was found gagged and on her back, each leg dangling off the end of the bed on either side of one of its corners. The family members called 9-1-1 and awaited the first responders' arrival outside of the home. The first to arrive was a deputy from the Penobscot County Sheriff's Office who located the son's body in the third bedroom, underneath a pile of bedding.

         [¶6] The next morning in Bucksport, law enforcement officers responded to an apartment where Coleman reportedly had spent the previous night and took Coleman, who was cooperative, into custody. At the time of his arrest, Coleman was in possession of the family's tan minivan, the mother's EBT card, and her purse. Coleman was interrogated that evening for five hours by two detectives; slightly over four hours into questioning, he admitted to "killing [the mother] and the kids."

         [¶7] On December 21 and 22, 2014, the Medical Examiner's Office performed the victims' autopsies and concluded that the cause of death for all three was asphyxiation by ligature strangulation. During the daughter's autopsy, the Chief Medical Examiner, Doctor Mark Flomenbaum, detected no trauma to her genitals and found that her hymen was intact, but he observed blunt force trauma to her face; two superficial abrasions on her buttocks, each slightly less than an inch long; and what he suspected was dried blood in her vaginal area and on the crotch of the pink shorts she was wearing. The daughter also had a plastic shopping bag stuffed tightly into her mouth and throat, which, Dr. Flomenbaum opined, occluded the passage of all air and sound. These observations prompted either Dr. Flomenbaum or the assisting nurse, acting under his supervision, to collect four swabs from the daughter's vaginal area using a sexual assault kit. During the afternoon of December 22, the four swabs were dried and placed together in an envelope inside the kit, which was sealed and left in the Medical Examiner's Office. The sealed kit remained there until December 24 at 10:00 a.m., when the same state police detective who had been present at the autopsy retrieved the kit and brought it to a temporary evidence locker and, later, to the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory for testing.

         [¶8] On December 31, 2014, a crime laboratory technician confirmed that the items of evidence delivered by the state police detective from the autopsy were contained in sealed bags, with the seals unbroken, and processed the individual items. Two of the four swabs in the envelope labeled "vaginal swabs" as well as the stained cutting from the shorts tested positive for, and were verified as containing, blood and semen. Samples of the vaginal swab with the highest concentration of forensic material and of the stained shorts were sent for DNA analysis.

         [¶9] Mixtures of DNA were found on the ligatures associated with the victims. The mixture on the ligature found on the mother was consistent with the DNA profiles of Coleman, the mother, and at least one unknown donor; a ligature found on the daughter revealed DNA consistent with Coleman, the daughter, and at least one other unknown donor; on another ligature found on the daughter, there was DNA matching her and at least one unknown donor; a ligature found on the son contained DNA that was consistent with the son, the daughter, and at least one unknown donor. A forensic DNA analyst found that a sample from the daughter's stained shorts had too little material for DNA analysis of the sperm or blood. The vaginal swabs contained two DNA profiles-one obtained from skin cells, which was consistent with the daughter, and the other from sperm cells, which was consistent with Coleman. The DNA analyst calculated that there was a statistical possibility of less than 1 in 3 00 billion that the sperm fraction profile came from someone other than Coleman.


         [¶10] Coleman was initially charged by complaint with three counts of murder and later with one count of gross sexual assault and was subsequently indicted by the Penobscot County Grand Jury for those charges. 17-A M.R.S. §§ 2Ol(1)(A); 253(1)(c). At his arraignment, Coleman entered pleas of not guilty.

         [¶11] On September 13, 2015, the State moved in limine to bar Coleman from cross-examining the medical examiner, Dr. Mark Flomenbaum, concerning a Connecticut judge's finding that Dr. Flomenbaum's testimony as an expert witness for a defendant in a child death case was not credible; and, Dr. Flomenbaum's removal from his previous position as the Massachusetts Chief Medical Examiner. The court reserved ruling on the motion until hearing Dr. Flomenbaum's testimony and later granted the State's motion over Coleman's repeated objection.[2] The court found that the Connecticut court's credibility determination was not a specific instance of conduct probative of a character for truthfulness. See M.R. Evid. 608(b). The court additionally found that Dr. Flomenbaum's removal from an administrative position in Massachusetts was not only irrelevant to his medical findings in an individual autopsy but also was likely to confuse, and needlessly add to, the issues more properly before the jury; the court therefore foreclosed any cross-examination on this issue pursuant to M.R. Evid. 403.

         [¶12] On November 10, 2016, after an eleven-day trial, the jury found Coleman guilty on all charges and the court continued the matter for sentencing. On January 19, 2017, the court imposed concurrent sentences of life imprisonment on each of the murder counts and a concurrent twenty-year term of imprisonment for the gross sexual assault. Coleman appealed directly from his conviction, pursuant to M.R. App. P. 20 and 15 M.R.S. § 2151. Upon his application, the Sentence Review Panel granted him leave to appeal from his ...

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