Jim Coleman, on the law school faculty at Duke University,
had big plans for his sabbatical year. He was finally going to write that legal
“Then the Duke lacrosse case happened,” he said.
Many in this region, and the country, were first introduced
to Coleman when he held up his hand during the Duke lacrosse debacle,
questioning the actions of Durham DA Mike Nifong. In a Washington Post article on September 7, 2007, writers Stuart Taylor
Jr. and KC Johnson referred to Coleman as the case’s “one hero.” But for
Coleman, his career has always been about the concept of fairness in the
In 1983, Coleman represented a Florida man on death row,
just weeks away from execution. Before that, Coleman’s career as a partner in a
DC firm had been about litigating commercial cases on behalf of major
corporations. By contrast, those cases moved very slowly and deliberately.
“But here’s a man whose life is on the line, and they are
basically treating it like it is fast food law.”
In 1986, Coleman volunteered to represent Ted Bundy, the
convicted serial killer, before the Supreme Court. He was a witness to Bundy’s
execution in Florida that same year.
“It’s tough to know someone going through that process, but
particularly so if you think that they didn’t get a fair trial, and they were
going to execute him anyway,” Coleman said. “Our job in the criminal justice
system is to force the state to do it properly, to do it fairly. The reason it
is important in cases like Bundy, where everyone believes he’s guilty, is that
if you don’t do it right in that case, you’ll cut corners in other cases.
“The only way you can protect innocent people is if you do
it right in every case.”
According to Coleman, there are more profound issues of
fairness involved in the way capital punishment is applied in this country. It
shouldn’t be dependent on whether you have a good lawyer, he said. And
statistically, the race of both the accused and the victim play into those
decisions by prosecutors. “We reserve the death penalty for when white victims
are killed.” And, he says, for when the accused is black.
Coleman is a native of Charlotte. He earned an undergraduate
degree at Harvard University before completing law school at Columbia
University. He clerked for a federal judge in Michigan and practiced briefly in
New York before joining the firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in
Washington, DC, where he practiced for 15 years — the last 12 years as a
Coleman is married to Doriane Coleman, who is also on the
law faculty at Duke. The couple met when the two worked together at the same DC
Athleticism runs in the family. Doriane once competed, both
nationally and internationally, in track and field. Their sons, Alexander, 12,
and Nico, 9, are “pretty good tennis players,” said their father.
Coleman’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Jacqueline, is
a lawyer with the Department of Justice in Washington. The proud grandfather
smiles when he mentions that her son, now a year old, is also named James.
So what does law professor Coleman do in his rare moments of
relaxation? “I read mysteries, legal thrillers,” he said.
Clearly, Coleman is connected to his profession on many
levels. For him, “teaching young lawyers is like discovering the fountain of
youth,” he said. He likes to see young people excited by the law.
“I had hoped that one of the consequences of the lacrosse
case would be that people who don’t ordinarily pay attention to the criminal
justice system would see that it is not just poor people and people of color
who get caught up in this system, but that all of us are at risk when the
system is malfunctioning in this way.”
Coleman shakes his head. “But I’m not sure that lesson was
No doubt professor Coleman will continue to put in his hand
when he feels the law is being arbitrarily applied. “When I see a prosecutor
doing something wrong, I call him on it,” he said. “When I see a defense
attorney doing something wrong, I call him on it.”
And what about that novel he was planning to write during
his sabbatical year?
“It’s nowhere,” he said. “I have a title, and that’s it.
“I’d really like to do that sometime.”