The Christopher Coleman case took another step toward concluding Tuesday afternoon, but it will go on for at least one more stage.
Judge Stephen McGlynn ruled during an evidentiary hearing at the Monroe County Courthouse that metadata attached to the backs of four photographs showing Coleman and his mistress, Tara Lintz, was not extraneous. Therefore, it could not be considered prejudicial and did not violate Coleman’s constitutional rights.
McGlynn also decided, however, he wanted an evidentiary hearing on two other items.
“At the end of this, we want to assure the public that justice prevailed,” McGlynn said. “I have a duty to make sure that this is resolved once and for all in a fair and just way.”
Tuesday’s hearing took place after Coleman appeared at the Monroe County Courthouse on March 27 for a hearing regarding the state’s motion to dismiss Coleman’s post-conviction relief petition.
Coleman was also present Tuesday, as were over 30 friends, family and concerned citizens.
If his petition is granted, Coleman could receive a new trial in Monroe County.
In December, Monroe County State’s Attorney Chris Hitzemann filed a motion to dismiss the petition.
Coleman is currently serving three concurrent life sentences in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections after being convicted in 2011 of the May 5, 2009 murders of his wife, Sheri, and two sons, Garret, 11, and Gavin, 9, in Columbia.
At Tuesday’s hearing, which focused on whether the metadata was extraneous and prejudicial, three police officers involved in the case testified as to how the information got on the backs of the pictures and why it was there.
Metadata is information about other data. In this case, it includes items such as dates when photographs were taken or modified that seem to contradict the timeline the defense outlined for Coleman’s affair with Lintz.
A jury consisting of Perry County residents bused in every morning for the 2011 trial rendered the guilty verdict. Jurors interviewed after that trial said a time stamp inconsistency on photos used at trial turned the tide toward a unanimous guilty verdict.
The officers testifying Tuesday were Columbia Deputy Police Chief Jason Donjon, Columbia Detective Sgt. Karla Heine and Granite City Police Lt. Kenneth Wojtowicz.
Heine was originally responsible for preparing the exhibits for trial, Donjon was the evidence technician and Wojtowicz assisted the investigation relating to the photographs and other electric issues as part of the major case squad.
All three individuals testified that the metadata, which they called file information, was present at trial because Heine attached it when preparing the photos for trial.
It was there to help Wojtowicz remember information like on what device each photo was located when he was testifying.
The officers all said the information on the back was never removed.
Coleman’s attorney, Lloyd Cueto, questioned the witnesses about why so much information was on the back, saying a simple note saying what the photo was and where it was found should have sufficed.
“I thought the exact information would be more important,” Heine responded.
Wojtowicz also pointed out Heine could not have known what the defense would ask during the trial, so putting more information on the backs of the photos ensured he would have whatever he needed.
Cueto also argued that the jury never physically handled the pictures during the trial, as they were handled only by the circuit clerk, state’s attorney and witness before being shown on an overhead projector.
The information on the backs of the photos was not shown.
Finally, Cueto pointed out that three photos have the exact same date and time at which they were created, which contradicts with the date on the front of the photo, date when the picture was created from another device and timeline of the affair.
Wojtowicz said that could be an error with the device the photos were pulled from and that it was “most likely” impossible for the photos to have been taken at the exact same time.
After a brief recess, McGlynn decided the metadata was not extraneous, which meant he could not consider the jurors’ statement during interviews or whether it was prejudicial.
He ruled that way because he believed the information was always part of the exhibits in question.
“I’m convinced, having read the transcript (of the trial)….and listening to testimony of witnesses today that these exhibits were admitted as is,” McGlynn said. “Therefore, I don’t believe it was extraneous.”
Nevertheless, the process will continue because McGlynn decided he wanted a second evidentiary hearing on the matter of Coleman having ineffective counsel, which he also argued for in his petition.
That hearing will focus on why Coleman’s lawyers did not object to the inclusion of the metadata and why they did not develop an argument regarding fingerprint evidence on the outside of a window at the Coleman residence and on a digital video recorder faceplate found along the side of the highway.
The fingerprints on both surfaces did not match Coleman.
Cueto argued the defense should have hired someone to test to see if those two fingerprints match and brought more witnesses on the matter.
If the defense had done so, Cueto said, it would have cast reasonable doubt on if Coleman committed the murders as opposed to a stranger like the defense argued.
McGlynn arrived at his decision after allowing the attorneys for both sides to make oral arguments on those issues.
Representing the state, Appellate Prosecutor Charles R. Zalar argued the defense did a good job of covering the fingerprint evidence in the trial, though he acknowledged they could have explained the issue more.
“I don’t think the defense has made a substantial showing that (Coleman’s) constitutional rights have been violated,” Zalar concluded.
Cueto countered that McGlynn needed to look at the cumulative items he raised in the petition in favor of Coleman.
He said Coleman specifically asked his lawyers to delve into the fingerprint issue more, but they refused.
“I don’t think it’s cost preventative, and I don’t think it’s a risk,” Cueto said of that tactic.
Ineffective assistance of counsel is extremely difficult to prove, McGlynn pointed out, but he wants to have an evidentiary hearing on the matter related to those two issues.
Despite that, Hitzemann viewed the hearing positively.
“I think all in all the hearing today went rather well,” he said, noting the judge ruled in favor of the state regarding the metadata.
The date of the next hearing will be announced at a later date.
It will probably be in June or July, Hitzemann said.