A few years ago, Ronald Coleman worked for a private company that contracted to provide rides for MITS, the Mobility Impaired Transportation Service, of Fort Worth. MITS is associated with “The T,” Fort Worth’s public bus system, and provides public transportation for those with physical and mental disabilities.
Diane Taylor (not her real name) was a 27-year-old mentally retarded woman new to Coleman’s route. She had not ridden on MITS very often, and she took her second ride with Coleman on August 26, 2009. Coleman picked up Diane and two others from a Fort Worth day habilitation workshop, and along the route, dropped off and picked up various other disabled passengers. At one passenger’s house, during a 12-minute delay, Coleman got in the backseat with Diane and sexually assaulted her. Coleman dropped her off two stops later, where Diane’s mother, Audrey, was waiting for her daughter.
Audrey could immediately tell something was wrong with Diane, as she was hunched over and looked upset. When she got inside, she threw a water bottle and said she “hated” herself. A few hours later, Diane refused to take a bath and told her mother, “He hurt me.” Audrey took Diane to the emergency room, where Diane reported that the driver of her transport had touched her vagina with his fingers. An external physical exam was done, no injuries were noted, and hospital staff called the Fort Worth Police Department (FWPD).
A little bit about Diane
At first glance, Diane’s disability is not obvious. She is average height, thin, pretty, and cheerful. When you interact with her, however, she is difficult to understand, due to her mental retardation and also a very thick speech impediment. Estimates of Diane’s “mental age” varied, anywhere from a 4-year old to a 13-year old. Diane can tell you her month and date of birth, but not the year. She can say how old she is, but not how old she’ll be next year or how old she was last year. She knows those with whom she lives (people and animals) but not her address. She can write her name but not many other words or sentences; she cannot read, do math, make change, or work. She can bathe herself but needs to be encouraged, and she cannot drive, cook, or live independently. Diane’s concept of time is particularly poor. She loves to write on paper, and during witness meetings appeared to be taking notes, writing various letters of the alphabet covering the entire page. (We used one of her notes as a trial exhibit to establish the disability element.)
The case was assigned to FWPD sex crimes Detective Kerry Adcock, a 29-year police officer who works homicides and cold cases. Det. Adcock, a soft-spoken, compassionate man, interviewed Diane two days after the offense. Diane told him that the driver touched her and it hurt. After some time, Det. Adcock brought Audrey into the room to translate one word he could not understand. It sounded like Diane was saying that the defendant touched her “bud,” which Det. Adcock thought might mean butt. With Audrey’s assistance Det. Adcock learned Diane was saying “blood.” Audrey explained that Diane was menstruating at the time of the assault, and Diane told Det. Adcock that Coleman touched her blood and then licked his fingers. When Audrey heard this, she left the room, emotional over the additional detail she had just learned.
Audrey returned a few minutes later, and Det. Adcock showed Diane a six-pack photo lineup, and allowed Audrey to read the instructions so that Diane understood. The audio recording of Diane’s interview and the lineup became our best piece of evidence. Diane looked at the lineup and immediately exclaimed, “That’s him!” and “I’m scared!” and started wailing. Audrey began to cry as well, told Diane she was proud of her, and that he would not hurt her anymore. Diane was able to circle Coleman’s photo, and Audrey initialed the photo for her. The audio recording of Diane’s emotional reaction is heart-wrenching.
A few days later, the defendant gave a voluntary, non-custodial interview to Det. Adcock. The defendant denied sexually assaulting Diane but gave some detailed information about the driving route that Diane could not explain due to her disability. The defendant said he picked up Diane and two young men at their workplace; Diane got in the front seat and the men in the backseat. Coleman claimed that Diane asked him about his marital status, and he told her he was married. At a stop along the way, for some reason, Diane got in the back seat. Once in the back seat, Diane played with and dropped some change she had in a change purse. During the 12-minute delay during a drop-off at a passenger’s house, Coleman went to the back seat to help Diane look for her change. They never found the dime that she dropped, but Coleman said he gave her a coin to replace it.
Det. Adcock told the defendant that a woman had made a sexual assault report, but according to established protocol, he had not identified the woman by her name or pseudonym. The defendant, however, immediately knew the complainant was Diane. This became a critical piece of evidence for guilt. The defendant gave rides to at least 11 disabled female passengers on the day of the offense. How would he have known which woman made the accusation if nothing had happened? (As an odd side note, during the interview, the defendant compared himself to Michael Jackson, as being similarly falsely accused.)
The defendant also spoke to police twice more, for polygraphs (of which the jury never learned). The first was inconclusive, and the second indicated deception. After Coleman failed the polygraph, Det. Adcock got an arrest warrant and gave it to the Fugitive Unit to serve. Coleman could not be located, however, as his cell phone was off and he had moved away from his apartment. He was subsequently featured in late 2009 on Tarrant County’s Most Wanted List in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram newspaper and on the local news with no luck. Coleman was finally stopped on a minor traffic violation and arrested on the warrant in March 2011, over a year and a half after the offense.
Preparing for trial
I reviewed the reports and listened to all the audio recordings, and then met with Diane and Audrey. Diane radiates happiness. She is a cheerful young woman, polite, talkative, and happy, and she loves to dress up. She smiles a lot and is typically in a good mood. She and Audrey have a very close relationship, and it is obvious Audrey cares for Diane very well. My impression of mother and daughter was that they are kind, good people in a difficult situation. At our second witness meeting at their apartment, they had Diane’s clothes for court already laid out and ready to go. Three years after the offense, and despite her disability, Diane remembered what happened and was emotionally ready to go to court.
By the time of trial, the defendant was facing a three-count indictment: 1) aggravated sexual assault of a disabled individual; 2) sexual assault; and 3) injury to a disabled individual (first-, second-, and third-degree felonies, respectively). We initially included Count Two in case the jury did not think Diane met the legal definition of disabled, but we ended up waiving that count as the evidence of disability was overwhelming. We included Count Three in case the jury did not believe penetration had occurred but believed she had felt pain, or in case jurors wanted to convict him of something lesser. Diane was consistent that the defendant touched her and that it caused pain, and we felt he was guilty of both.
My trial partner, Bill Vassar, and I tried this case twice, the first resulting in a hung jury, and the second resulting in a conviction on both counts. We met with Diane and Audrey three times before each trial, meeting them casually the first time to get to know them (and vice versa) and discussing facts with each witness, separately, at the second and third meetings. In preparation for Diane’s testimony, we treated her similarly to a child witness. We made sure she understood the difference between a truth and a lie. She said telling the truth was good and promised she would do that. We went through the offense, and she was always consistent. I recognized that direct examination would be limited by her disability, as she is incapable of giving answers longer than a few words. I tried not to ask leading questions but rather those that gave her options to choose from, such as, “Were you in the front seat or the back seat?” During trial, I also showed her different body parts and had her name them (head, eyes, nose, mouth, hand, elbow, knee, foot), and asked which part of his body touched her. We used two different visuals (a finger penetrating both a closed fist and then the opening of a Kleenex box) to demonstrate penetration, which she consistently affirmed.
The first trial
The first trial occurred in November 2012. Throughout voir dire and opening statement, I prepared the jury to hear from our victim. In jury selection, I asked potential jurors about people they knew with mental disabilities and what it might be like for a person with a mental disability to have to testify. In opening, I became much more specific and told them all about Diane. I told them about her disability and her speech impediment, and I asked them to listen very closely to her testimony and to be patient.
We called Audrey first and Diane second. One defense position in both trials was that Diane was not competent to testify. The judge asked Diane several simple questions, which she answered appropriately, and asked her what it meant to tell the truth. Diane replied, “The truth will set you free,” and the judge was convinced. I also remember a highlight of the trial being when the judge sneezed, and Diane told him, “Bless you.” Diane did well on direct but failed to identify the defendant in the courtroom. She testified it was her driver, and she knew his name, so identity was not an issue, but I was surprised she did not see him in the courtroom. I have no explanation for why—he looked the same from what I could tell, but it had been three years since Diane had seen him. She may not have looked closely out of nervousness or fear, but she did look in his direction and said she didn’t see him.
Diane did worse on cross. She got very quiet initially, having never met the defense attorney before, but then relaxed and was able to answer some questions. The defense attorney, David Richards, set up five chairs in front of the bench to represent the five seats in the car, sat himself in the driver’s seat, pantomimed steering a steering wheel, and asked who he would be? Diane did not recognize that he would be the driver, and it seemed that she could not understand the symbolism of the chairs in the courtroom. Diane was able to answer some of his questions, but not all. At one point, Diane asked Mr. Richards a question herself: Why did he walk with a limp? That spontaneous moment showed her as she is, child-like and simple.
We had several other witnesses, including Diane’s Tarrant County MHMR service coordinator, who testified to the disability element and that she has never seen Diane in a bad mood; the ER doctor who examined her; the patrol officer who made the report; Det. Adcock; the fugitive officer who tried to find the defendant; our investigator Don Pilcher, who was instrumental in our trial preparation; and the patrol officer who ultimately arrested Coleman. We also called the MITS contractor liaison who testified as to the route Coleman drove that day, the 12-minute delay at the one house, and that per their GPS records, it did not look like he had strayed from the route.
I had prepared a short clip of Diane’s audio interview with Det. Adcock—her emotional reaction to the six-pack photo lineup that I wanted the jury to hear—and offered it as an excited utterance. The defense requested that the entire interview be admitted. I felt confident that Diane’s interview helped us, and I immediately agreed. I think the defense wanted it in to establish that Audrey got very upset at one point during the interview, to argue that that could have affected Diane.
The first trial in November 2012 ended in a hung jury, with eight jurors for guilt and four for not guilty. Among the not-guilty votes was a male Dallas police detective. In voir dire, that juror did not seem the strongest juror regarding a child witness, but I figured the defense would surely strike him, and, if not, he ultimately would be good for us, being a police officer. I was very wrong. Can you imagine being a non-law-enforcement juror in the room with a seasoned detective who is voting not guilty? I don’t know why he voted the way he did, but I imagine he got a few jurors to go with him. I am proud of our other eight citizens who stood up and refused to change their vote. I learned my lesson never to pre-judge any juror based on occupation, even those in law enforcement.
Prior to the first trial we had offered the defendant an eight-year prison sentence on aggravated sexual assault. Coleman had previously completed a deferred adjudication probation for auto theft and had been arrested for driving while license suspended, but he otherwise had a clean record. Importantly, though, he had been investigated one year prior to meeting Diane (in August 2008) for fondling another young disabled woman who also rode with him. That woman, who has Down’s Syndrome, made an outcry to her mother and then recanted. The case was investigated internally, but due to that victim’s recantation and Coleman’s denial, he was not fired, and no one called the police. That woman’s mother allowed me to speak to her daughter, and it was my impression, as well as the mother’s, that her daughter was in love with the defendant. That woman denied that the defendant had touched her, but she also readily admitted that she liked him and would cover for him to get him out of trouble. That woman’s mother remained convinced that the defendant had touched her daughter.
After the mistrial, we offered Coleman a deferred adjudication to aggravated sexual assault. He declined, asking to plead guilty to a non-registerable, state jail felony deferred. Diane and Audrey steadfastly wanted to go forward with another trial and so did we, so we proceeded.
The second trial
In April 2013, we tried Coleman again. I felt that, in theory, a retrial could only help us because Diane was comfortable with us and the courtroom, and she was consistent—but I was very nervous. Diane did better on direct than in the first trial, and even identified the defendant in the courtroom. We actually had never discussed her failure to identify him in the last trial with Audrey or with Diane; in fact, I thought it was probably easier on Diane that she had not seen him. At the second trial, however, Diane walked into the courtroom and there was a 10-minute delay as the jury passed around and read an exhibit admitted with the previous witness, the MHMR service coordinator. Perhaps Diane felt more comfortable, or maybe it was those awkward 10 minutes of silence as she sat in the witness chair, but she identified the defendant enthusiastically, pointing at him, and exclaiming, “There he is!” and “He’s the devil!” The rest of her direct exam went very well.
Cross examination, however, was worse than the first trial. The same defense attorney, David Richards, repeated his seats-of-the-car demonstration and had Diane step down and sit in different chairs to represent where she was at various points during the ride. I am not sure if she understood what she was doing at all. She also for the first time mentioned that another young man was in the car that day, which was clearly not true according to the driving record and all the other evidence. Ultimately, Diane became extremely agreeable, answering “yes” to every question that was asked. I realized she was just saying “yes” and did not fully understand the complex questions Mr. Richards was asking her.
Knowing the defense had previously wanted the whole interview into evidence, we offered the entirety of Diane’s interview with Det. Adcock, including that upsetting reaction to the lineup, and it was admitted again. In the first trial, we had emphasized Coleman’s apparent flight as evidence of guilt. However, the defense had countered that the FWPD Fugitive Unit did not avail itself of every possible resource. Defense had called Coleman’s wife in the first trial, who claimed the defendant did not abscond and that his cell phone was cancelled for financial reasons. She worked for Fort Worth Independent School District and stated that the police department had never once contacted her looking for him. In the second trial, we made less of an issue of the flight and did not call the fugitive officer, although we did ask Det. Adcock about the Tarrant County Most Wanted List. The defendant’s wife testified again and again denied that they absconded, but this time admitted that a church friend had alerted them that the defendant was on the Most Wanted List.
The MITS contractor liaison testified for us again and in a little more detail than the first time. She brought up several interesting points. For one, I specifically asked her about all the other women he drove that day (in the first trial, I had mentioned that only in closing). Secondly, the witness said that Diane’s moving from the front seat to the back seat was a major safety violation, which the defendant had been trained on and reminded about previously. She said that Coleman should have stopped the trip and reported it at once, but he did not. Third, she pointed out with the driving record, that the defendant had altered the original schedule just slightly, a change that resulted in him having a few more minutes with Diane in the car. We had, frankly, failed to realize these second and third points before the first trial, but they came out on our second witness meeting with the MITS liaison.
Unlike the first trial, Coleman testified in the second trial, I think because he realized he had to explain how he knew which of the 11 female passengers made the allegation. He claimed that Det. Adcock had tangentially revealed Diane’s identity in an un-recorded pre-interview, before turning the recorder on. During the audio of the defendant’s statement, however, he immediately jumped to Diane as the complainant but says several times, “I don’t know what’s being said,” which conflicted with his trial testimony that Det. Adcock told him details before the recorder was turned on.
The defense arguments were: 1) Audrey had somehow coached Diane to make the allegations up; 2) Audrey had become upset when she learned details at the hospital and at the detective’s office, and Diane persisted in the allegations to avoid upsetting her mother further; and 3) Diane’s word, confused as it was, was not enough to convict him without DNA evidence. I had voir dire’ed the jury on the “‘CSI’ effect,” and that there may well not be DNA. The victim had gone to an ER that did not do sexual assault exams, and the defense argued that she should have been taken to a second hospital for a second exam. We were able to elicit through the doctor that digital penetration would not always cause injuries, and through Det. Adcock that it is not realistic to find the defendant’s DNA in the victim’s vagina where there’s been digital penetration—in fact, in his 29 years of detective work, he had never had such a case. The defense took the argument further, arguing that they should have swabbed her clothes, the seat, and even the dime she dropped on the floor. I pointed out in closing that such testing would not be helpful, as you would expect the defendant’s skin cells to be throughout his car, so it might be found on her clothes and the seat, and the dime simply wouldn’t prove anything.
In closing arguments, as in the first trial, I re-played a short audio clip for the jury: Diane’s hysterical reaction to the six-pack photo lineup. I was later told that the defendant’s teenage daughter ran out of the courtroom when that audio was played (she had not been present for the first trial). I reminded the jury about how consistent Diane had been, that Audrey had done nothing but be supportive and loving, and that Diane did not have the capacity to make up and remember something like this unless it were true.
After a long deliberation, during which they listened to Coleman’s and Diane’s audio statements again, the jury convicted the defendant of aggravated sexual assault of a disabled individual and injury to a disabled individual. In punishment, after hearing about his prior deferred, they sentenced him to 12 years in prison on the first count and five years on the second. I think hearing the story from the victim both in court and on audio and observing her demeanor and disability sealed it for the jury.
It was an honor to stand up for this family at trial. It was a challenging case, but it was an important one to prosecute for several reasons: the vulnerability of the victim, the defendant’s violation of a position of trust, and the 2008 allegations as well. Although the jury never heard of the 2008 investigation, that woman’s mother was in the courtroom for closing arguments and was happy when justice was finally served. Diane and Audrey were so pleased that several people—the detective, prosecution team, and jury—believed and stood up for Diane. This case will always serve as an important reminder of why we do this job.
Editor’s note: Please read “A very special victim,” for the story of this trial told from the point of view of the victim assistance coordinator, Laura L. Flores.