Jim Coleman: “Hero” In Duke Lacrosse Case

By Sharon Swanson


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 thriller.

“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 justice system.

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 partner.

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 firm.

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 learned.”

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.”