ESPN

Grounds For Return

For Chicago White Sox grounds crew member Nevest Coleman, the journey from prison to exoneration is a story of time lost, new beginnings and a murder that remains a mystery.

Editor's note: This story contains graphic material.

CHICAGO -- As he strolls toward the employee entrance at work for the first time in nearly 24 years, Nevest Coleman smiles. He carries a black backpack over his right shoulder, a white plastic bag and travel mug in his left hand. It's March 26, 2018, a few minutes past 7 a.m. In front of Coleman stands a familiar yet new opportunity. And a pair of known faces.

Harry Smith and Jerry Powe worked alongside Coleman as members of the Chicago White Sox grounds crew in 1994. They were friends away from the park, playing video games and sharing stories about fatherhood -- Coleman with a 2-year-old daughter and 3-month-old son at the time. But then, there was a vicious sexual assault, and a woman left for dead. Coleman wouldn't walk into the employee entrance at work for more than two decades.

Over the years, Smith and Powe remained constants at the stadium on Chicago's South Side. Some 350 miles to the southwest, Coleman lived as Illinois state prisoner K-58074, sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years after a jury found him guilty of murder and aggravated criminal sexual assault. But this past November, new DNA evidence prompted a judge to overturn Coleman's conviction, freeing him from prison. In March, another judge issued a certificate of innocence, wiping the conviction from Coleman's record.

Ten days before the White Sox home opener this spring, Coleman was back at the park, and back with his friends.

When Coleman arrives at the stadium, Smith wraps his arms around him. "What's up, big man?" he says with a smile. Out on the field, Smith hands Coleman a White Sox jacket and cap. "It's good to welcome you back," Powe says. "Now it's official," Smith adds. Coleman looks at the stadium around him. In 24 years, so much has changed. The outfield wall and stadium seats, once blue, are now green. The blue metal batter's eye is now covered in evergreens. A trio of shiny new HD LED video boards hang in left, center and right fields. And the name has been changed -- from "new" Comiskey to U.S. Cellular to Guaranteed Rate Field. Coleman takes it all in. "I'm ready," he says.

Sixteen miles to the south, in Section 6, Lot 20, Row 61 of the Burr Oak Cemetery, a handful of dried-out leaves left over from the fall blows across an otherwise innocuous patch of yellow grass. This is the final resting spot for Antwinica "Mikey" Bridgeman. On the evening of April 28, 1994, Coleman found Bridgeman's decaying body in the unused basement beneath the home where he lived with his family. A piece of concrete was shoved down Bridgeman's throat. A conduit pipe jammed between her legs.

Seventeen days earlier, on the eve of her 20th birthday, Bridgeman left a gathering with Coleman and another woman to head home. That was the last time most anyone would see her, until Coleman found her rotting in that basement, wearing the same clothes she had on at the gathering: faded Bill Blass blue jeans and a satin red Bulls jacket with her name embroidered on the chest.

"I've done hundreds of murder cases, and this is one of those that's going to stick with me forever," says Brian Sexton, a former assistant state's attorney who tried the case in 1997. "This isn't a feel-good story."

You might think this is a story you already know -- the White Sox grounds crew member who spent 8,606 days in custody after he says police forced him to confess to the murder he insists he didn't commit. The man who now has his job back and is rebuilding his life after justice was seemingly served. But the story of Nevest Coleman and Mikey Bridgeman isn't that simple. Murder cases and exonerations rarely are. Six months after Coleman walked out of the Henry C. Hill Correctional Center a free man, two months after receiving his certificate of innocence, his exoneration has produced a fresh round of questions and frustrations surrounding the rape and murder of Mikey Bridgeman -- a case that is now unsolved about a woman who ended up in an unmarked grave. There's a former assistant state's attorney with "no doubt" they got the right guy. There are Chicago cops who refuse to let their families go anywhere near Guaranteed Rate Field while Coleman is working. There's the Bridgeman family, which has stayed largely quiet since the case and declined an interview for this story, but expressed through a family friend extreme disappointment in Coleman's release.

And then there's Coleman himself, now a 49-year-old brother, father, uncle and grandfather who is finally home. He is a man trying to find his place in this world, wondering with each stranger who walks past whether they know who he is, where he's been and what it was once alleged he did.

This is the story of Nevest Coleman and Mikey Bridgeman, told through the lens of nine distinct places that have defined this case for the past 24 years.


The decomposing body of Antwinica "Mikey" Bridgeman was found in the basement of the Coleman family home on April 28, 1994. Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for ESPN

THE COLEMAN RESIDENCE
917 W. GARFIELD BLVD.
APRIL 28, 1994

On the night Nevest Coleman discovered Mikey Bridgeman's body, his older sister Jennice was prepping to host a Mary Kay party. A foul smell had permeated the house where the Colemans lived, and Jennice wanted her brother to check it out before her guests arrived. The Colemans' basement was accessible from outside the back of the house. Jennice assumed an animal had gotten in and died.

Coleman asked a friend who had just gotten out of jail, Michael Barber, to go with him. As they followed the walkway toward the basement door, the smell grew stronger. Coleman and Barber tried to open the door, but it wouldn't budge. They grabbed a flashlight and shined it through a window. That's when they saw the body.

"It was just like a figure, somebody laying there," Nevest Coleman told E:60. "I jumped back. I didn't know who it was. I told my mom to call the police."

When police arrived, they pried open the door and found Bridgeman lying on the basement floor. Her shirt was lifted above her chest. Her underwear was around her ankles. A piece of concrete was jammed down her throat. A pipe inserted into her vagina. There was blood almost everywhere. Around the body were empty beer cans and used condoms. It looked like a junkyard, with rusted-out bicycle parts, metal fans, discarded ladders and jugs of paint. Bridgeman's body had been decomposing for more than two weeks. Her face barely resembled a human. Tiny maggots crawled across her chest. The scene was so disturbing that several police officers vomited on the side of the Colemans' home.

"This is one of the most horrific scenes I have ever seen," Sexton says. "It sticks with you forever."

A medical examiner would later determine Bridgeman's official cause of death as suffocation. The piece of concrete was shoved so far down her throat she couldn't breathe. The medical examiner would find teeth in her stomach. Gravel stuck in her vocal cords.

At the time in the mid-1990s, West Garfield Boulevard, also known as 55th Street, divided this section of Chicago's violent Englewood neighborhood between two gangs. Bridgeman had been a member of the Gangster Disciples. She had switched allegiances to the Vice Lords. Coleman told police he joined the Gangster Disciples when he was 14 but had left the gang before the birth of his daughter, then 2. He also had a 3-month-old son with another woman, his girlfriend at the time.

He had spent the past two years working for the White Sox, a job his dad had helped him land. He said he never missed a day of work. Friends described Bridgeman as an entertaining, outgoing, life-of-the-party type. She loved the Chicago Bulls. Her boyfriend at the time, Chester Latham, says she planned to start taking college classes. Now she was dead.

Coleman left with police for initial questioning. He told them he didn't know anyone by the name of Antwinica. He had nothing to do with this. They drove him home. About three hours later, as Coleman tried to fall asleep on his parents' couch, as he often did, the police returned. Some at the April 11 gathering had told detectives that Coleman left with Bridgeman the last time anyone saw her.

"They asked did I want to talk to them," Coleman recalls. "Yeah, because I knew I ain't did anything. So I left."

As her brother left, Jennice Coleman looked below from her bedroom window. It was around midnight.

"I was like, 'Nevest, are you OK?'" Jennice recalled. "'Yeah, yeah Jennice. Just go back in. I'm good. I'll be back.'

"But he didn't come back. That was it."


CHICAGO POLICE DEPARTMENT
AREA 1 HEADQUARTERS
5101 S. WENTWORTH AVE.
APRIL 29, 1994

At the police headquarters in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America, Nevest Coleman sat in a small, windowless interview room, waiting to return home. Police initially did not charge him with anything. There was no lawyer present. But detectives explained they had witnesses who said they saw Coleman walk Bridgeman home on likely the last night of her life. Telling police he didn't know Antwinica? That was a lie. Coleman said he didn't know the name Antwinica. He knew her only by her nickname, Mikey. Coleman explained he walked Bridgeman home as far as he safely could that night. He watched her cross the street. Then she turned around and waved.

"To me, when you wave like that, it means you're straight, you're safe," Coleman says.

He told detectives that he had no idea how she ended up in his basement but that it had nothing to do with him. After two hours of questions, Coleman says police left him alone for two more hours. Then, as night turned to morning, Coleman says one officer called him a "lying-a--ed n-----." He said another officer punched him on the side of the face twice, sending him into the fetal position. Today, police interviews generally are recorded. That wasn't the case in 1994.

"I was up for a long time, and they said, 'Give us a story,'" Coleman recalls. "'What story?' And they started feeding it to me. That's how the story came about. They wanted me to say I was there. And they fed me a lie. Because, you know, a lot of things I ain't know nothing about and they was telling me certain things to say and I gave a story."

Coleman says police as well as assistant state's attorney Hal Garfinkel told him that if he signed a confession admitting his involvement in the crime, he could go home. "I didn't know," Coleman says. "That's what I was looking for, to go home."

Coleman gave an initial statement. Around 7 a.m., he was arrested. At 9:57 a.m., Garfinkel interviewed Coleman, and a court reporter documented the statement. For seven minutes, that reporter documented Coleman relaying the following story: Coleman was walking with Bridgeman that night when he ran into two other men, Derrell Fulton and Eddie Taylor. Fulton was a convicted rapist, Taylor a convicted murderer. Both men were known Gangster Disciples. Coleman said he suggested they go to his basement to have sex with Bridgeman, who was later determined to have a blood alcohol level between 0.1 and 0.3 at the time. All four of them went to the basement, Coleman said in the statement. But after having sex with Taylor and Fulton, Bridgeman wouldn't have sex with Coleman, he said. She began to yell that she no longer wanted to be there, and Coleman said he instructed Fulton to put the piece of concrete in her mouth. Taylor then grabbed the pipe, Coleman said, and jammed it between Bridgeman's legs. Coleman said he saw Bridgeman's body shake violently. Then the three men fled, leaving Bridgeman to die. Coleman said he then went to his girlfriend's house.

The basement, accessible from outside the back of the Coleman house, had largely been abandoned before Bridgeman's rape and murder. Courtesy Chicago Police Department

"He trusted them," Jennice Coleman says. "And he signed it."

Police records show Coleman had been arrested in 1993 for unlawful use of a weapon. He was not charged. In the Bridgeman case, Coleman's signature appears at the bottom of all 19 pages of his statement, including Page 14, where Garfinkel asks, "How have you been treated by the police?" Coleman's answer: "Very well."

In a private conversation before the court reporter was called into the room, Coleman says, he told Garfinkel that police had cursed and struck him twice. He testified that Garfinkel told him he would take care of that later. Garfinkel, who is now in private practice, declined to speak for this story, but his supervisor at the time, John Muldoon, said: "I can't believe if somebody was beaten and he [Garfinkel] knew about it, he wouldn't have told me. There was no upside for Garfinkel to have done what he is accused of doing."

Police soon found Fulton and took him to Area 1 headquarters, where he was shown Coleman's confession. He then confessed, as well, in his version saying that Bridgeman initially refused to have sex with Taylor. After having oral sex with Bridgeman, Fulton said in his statement, he served as the lookout while Coleman and Taylor sexually assaulted Bridgeman.

Fulton also testified that he was mistreated by police, with one officer saying to him, "You're lucky I don't take you somewhere and put a bullet in your brain." Fulton said the officer then struck him. "That was the last time I saw him," he said.

When Coleman was allowed to phone home, Jennice says, he told his family the police had beaten him. Later that afternoon, his father saw him at the police station and would testify that his son's face appeared swollen. But Juliette Ferguson, a lawyer brought to the station to help Coleman, later testified she didn't see any signs Coleman had been abused. Sexton argued in court that a photograph taken of Coleman at noon -- shortly after his statement had been given -- also failed to show signs of abuse.

"There's absolutely no evidence of that whatsoever," Sexton says. "Here's the thing -- if it was somebody else, why would they go, 'You know what? I'm going to pick Nevest Coleman's basement, and we're just going to put the body there'? It doesn't make sense."

A judge granted ESPN's request to view the impounded photo, but Patrick Brown of the Cook County Circuit Court Clerk's Office said the Polaroid in question has been missing since 1998.

"There are a lot of people who want to see that piece of evidence," Brown says. "But I don't have it. Throughout the years of viewing the transcript, it went missing."

Sexton says criminals often confess because they don't understand the law of accountability. "Even if you aren't the one actually doing the horrific act, if you're there, you're just as guilty as if you did it yourself," he says.

Latham, Bridgeman's boyfriend, told police that Taylor had forced a hickey on Bridgeman's neck the week before. And both Taylor and Fulton had been harassing Bridgeman after her change in gang allegiance. "I wanted to get 'em," Latham says now. "I called my friend. 'Do you have a gun?' And she was like, 'No, don't do it, baby.' I wish now I would have done it. She'd still be alive."

Police also questioned Taylor, but he never confessed. All three men were charged with first-degree murder and aggravated criminal sexual assault. Coleman and Fulton faced an additional charge of aggravated kidnapping. The state chose not to pursue a case against Taylor, citing a lack of evidence. But with Coleman's and Fulton's confessions in hand, the state would proceed with both murder cases. It would seek the death penalty.


Friends described Antwinica "Mikey" Bridgeman as a fun, outgoing, life-of-the-party personality. Chicago Sun-Times

STATE OF ILLINOIS CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY
2650 S. CALIFORNIA AVE.
JULY 25, 1997

For more than three years, Nevest Coleman waited for his day in court, hoping a jury would set him free. His defense argued a lack of physical evidence connecting Coleman to the crime -- no fingerprints, DNA, hair fibers, nothing. The state fought back with Coleman's confession and strong circumstantial evidence: Coleman was the last known person to have been seen with Bridgeman. Her body was discovered in his basement, in the same clothes she wore when she was with him 17 days earlier. Coleman testified in the motion to suppress his confession. That motion was denied. He did not testify in his defense at the trial.

After a day of deliberations, a jury found Coleman guilty on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated criminal sexual assault. A separate jury found Derrell Fulton guilty, as well.

"The only thing I thought about was that statement," Coleman says. "If I hadn't given that statement, I would have been home a long time ago."

Before sentencing, 32 people came forward on Coleman's behalf, hoping to spare his life. There were family, friends, a local pastor and a pair of familiar faces from Comiskey Park: Harry Smith and Jerry Powe. Coleman smiled at the two men in the courtroom.

"When I see them two came up there and speak on my behalf, I was like, you know, that's family," Coleman recalled.

Before Cook County Circuit Court Judge Dennis J. Porter sentenced Coleman, he asked Coleman whether he had anything to say. "Just to let the victim's family know that I'm sorry for what had happened," he said.

Porter did not impose the death penalty, in large part because Coleman had never been convicted of a crime. But he eviscerated the defendant in his closing remarks.

"These are the acts of a barbarian," Porter said at the time. "I wish I could believe you are sorry about what happened, but quite frankly I don't think that's true at all. I don't think you care any more about that person and what you did than stepping on a cockroach or an ant and walking out of this building. I think that's the way you are.

"I don't have any doubt at all that you're guilty of the murder of this woman and the aggravated sexual assault of this woman. Absolutely none. I hope you can live with yourself because I really doubt that I could. But that's for you."

Before Coleman left the courtroom, his brother Louis stepped behind Nevest. He placed his hand on Nevest's head. Nevest looked up at him. He had one request. "Take care of my babies," he said.


Nevest Coleman told police he had nothing to do with the murder of Bridgeman. He says that's when they began coercing him into a false confession. Courtesy Chicago Police Department

MENARD CORRECTIONAL CENTER
MENARD, ILLINOIS
1999 - 2017

In prison, there were nights when the screaming and yelling would keep Coleman awake. And on the lucky nights when he would fall asleep, he'd sometimes wake up, forget where he was, look around and endure the punch in the gut all over again. Prison.

Two years before transferring to Menard Correctional Center in southern Illinois, Coleman stood in his cell that first night after sentencing and wrapped his fingers around metal bars that stood between him and freedom. He pulled as hard as he could. The bars didn't budge. He says he still believed a lack of evidence would one day set him free. He refused to lose hope. But he also began preparing for a stark reality: spending the rest of his life in prison.

Coleman says he tried to keep to himself and learn whom he could and couldn't trust. It wasn't all that different from the neighborhood back home. He says he leaned on the strength of his family members who refused to turn their backs on him and would make the six-hour drive to visit, including his son and daughter, who took joy in climbing on Dad's lap and washing his ears.

"We used to feed him food and stuff," says Coleman's daughter, Chanequa Allen. "It got to the point where we would sit there and clean his ears for no reason. He enjoyed it. I didn't show him that I cried. On the ride home, I just cried to myself because I want my dad to come home."

Coleman thought about retreating from his family, thinking it would make life easier on them. But he couldn't. Instead, they became his rock.

"If you had no family or anybody behind you, that's when you really erupt," he said. "I had my family."

His first two years at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Illinois, Coleman pored through every detail of his case, studying at the jail library and trying to find a school or attorney who might help. But nothing clicked. The letters went unanswered. He tried to stay positive. While he waited, he kept his mind occupied by working. He helped out in the kitchen and by picking up the grounds.

"I always knew that somewhere there's a loophole," he says. "We always said it's easy getting yourself in. It's hard getting yourself out. And so you've got to find that little loophole where the mistake was. I didn't know how long it was going to take, but somehow, some way, I'd be out."

With each family visit, Coleman would watch his children get older, and his mom and dad grow closer to the end of their lives. Coleman's father died in 2003. His mother died six years later. She had been sick, but the family had decided not to tell Coleman. They didn't want to upset him. Then his brother phoned to tell him what had happened. He was unable to attend their funerals or say goodbye. Chanequa also gave birth to one of three grandchildren while he was in prison.

"I was angry because the police took that away from me," Coleman says. "They took my mother and my father away from me. They took my uncles, cousins, aunties, my grandmother. They took all that away from me, something I can never get back, you know. And that hurts the most."

The night Coleman heard about his mom, he says, he went back to his cell and just lay in his bed, staring at the ceiling. He thought about the good times with his parents, and about building some of those same memories with his kids. And he recommitted himself to finding freedom.


For more than two decades, Coleman's future looked grim. Now out of prison, and back with the White Sox, all of that has changed. Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for ESPN

LOEVY & LOEVY LAW FIRM
311 N. ABERDEEN ST., CHICAGO
May 2016

In the spring of 2016, a lawyer representing Derrell Fulton reached out to Russell Ainsworth, a lawyer with Loevy & Loevy and a lecturer with the Exoneration Project at the University of Chicago, suggesting he look into Coleman's case. The Conviction Integrity Unit of the Cook County State's Attorney Office had agreed to look at Fulton's conviction in the Bridgeman case and use updated DNA testing to examine several of the items found at the scene. The CIU investigates claims of innocence to determine whether an innocent person has been wrongly convicted.

"I remember telling Nevest, 'If you didn't do it, whatever happens for me, it's going to happen for you,'" Fulton says. "I distinctly remember telling him that."

Ainsworth specializes in police brutality, wrongful arrest and cases with constitutional violations. To him, two things stood out. Though Coleman had been arrested in 1993, he had never been convicted of a crime. "It was preposterous to think that Nevest would be charged with his first crime being a horrific rape-murder," Ainsworth says. And second, Ainsworth says, some of the officers involved in the case had previously faced accusations of misconduct, including coercing confessions.

Coleman waited more than five months for DNA results to gradually trickle in. The scientific precision and accuracy of DNA testing had improved greatly over two decades, but sample after sample came back inconclusive -- until a semen sample from Bridgeman's underwear that had not been previously tested failed to match Coleman, Fulton, Taylor or Latham, Bridgeman's boyfriend at the time. Ainsworth says it instead matched to a serial rapist who had been connected to three other sexual assaults but was free. It was the ticket Coleman had been waiting for. "I thought we needed to bring these men home and we needed to bring them home right now," Ainsworth says.

In August 2017, Ainsworth filed a petition to vacate Coleman's sentence and conviction. Three months later, Judge Porter, the same judge from Coleman's original case, agreed. On Nov. 20, 2017, Nevest Coleman walked out of prison a free man.


The emotions poured out as Coleman, a free man, and his family were reunited a few days before Thanksgiving this past November. Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune

HENRY C. HILL CORRECTIONAL CENTER
GALESBURG, ILLINOIS
Nov. 20, 2017

As he took his final steps toward the prison door, Nevest Coleman didn't speak. Friends and family eagerly waited across the street, including Jennice and Louis, Chanequa and her daughter, Shaniya. Before Coleman walked out of the Henry C. Hill Correctional Center, Ainsworth prepared him for life on the outside. The world moves far faster now, Ainsworth explained. It's going to be difficult to express yourself at times. You might wrestle with your emotions and feel disconnected from family and friends. Just know it's all normal.

"I wanted to reinforce those things get better with time and I hoped he would lead a full and happy life," Ainsworth says. "But he shouldn't move too quickly. That's how you get in trouble."

As Coleman walked through the door and came into the vision of his family, the squeals of delight grew louder. With each step, the emotion spilled out of everyone. Suddenly he was upon them, wrapping his arms around everyone he could, kissing his granddaughter for the first time. Right there on the side of the road, a family reunited.

"Seeing my family, grabbed my grandbaby. A beautiful day," he says. "To hold her for the first time. You got that little baby looking at you, smiling. It was great."

"It's like don't run up to him, but I couldn't do it," Chanequa says. "I ran up there and hugged him so tight, didn't want to let him go. The whole car ride home, I'm laughing and staring at him."

Coleman spent Thanksgiving with his family. He thought about a return to the White Sox. He loved to power-wash. And in February, his old friend Jerry Powe called with a question.


Returning to his job with the White Sox has been like returning to a second family for Nevest Coleman. Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for ESPN

GUARANTEED RATE FIELD
CHICAGO
April 5, 2018

In his first game back with the Chicago White Sox in nearly 24 years, Nevest Coleman hoped for rain. He wanted to roll the tarp onto the field. Instead, Mother Nature offered snow, as a barrage of lake-effect flurries filled the air for the 2018 White Sox home opener against Detroit.

Coleman had long said that if he ever got out of prison, he hoped to get his job back. When he told Ainsworth and The Rev. William Vanecko, a priest the Coleman family has long known, they reached out to the organization on his behalf.

"It's a win-win for them to have him back," Vanecko says. "He's a good worker and to do something to help out a guy who's been through a lot."

The White Sox agreed. Powe, now a supervisor, called Coleman to ask whether he wanted to come back and work for the White Sox.

"I thought he was joking with me," Coleman says. "But he wasn't."

After passing a drug test, Coleman was offered his old job back. Now he's a celebrity of sorts, given all the attention from his story. It's a part of his adjustment from more than two decades in prison to life as a free man. And it hasn't been easy. Coleman says he doesn't like sleeping in the confinement of a bedroom, instead preferring the couch. Waiting in lines brings back memories of waiting for food in prison, as Jennice found out during an initial trip to the grocery store.

"The long lines, he was getting fidgety, and I'm looking like, 'Are you OK?'" she says. "I kept rubbing his shoulders and holding his hand, and I told him, 'Put your hand on the cart. Are you OK?' And he just said, 'I have to get used to all these people around me.'"

Coleman refuses to wear anything blue, the color of his prison uniform for so many years. And after two decades of prison showers, he loves the comfort of a long bath. "I just want to sit in the tub, you know?" he says. He's had to teach himself how to text and learn that you can take photos with a cellphone.

The first night Coleman stayed with her, Jennice says, she woke up to check on her brother. She wanted to make sure it wasn't all a dream. Sure enough, there he was on the couch. That's when Coleman opened his eyes. "What are you doing?" he said. Jennice, startled, asked Nevest whether he needed water. "No," her brother said, "I need you to stop hovering over me."

"I went back to my room and started crying," Jennice says. "I just couldn't believe that day had finally came."


Retired Chicago police detective Kenneth Boudreau bristles at the suggestion that Coleman had nothing to do with the murder of Mikey Bridgeman. Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for ESPN

EMBASSY SECURITY GROUP
MOKENA, ILLINOIS
May 7, 2018

When he hears the name Nevest Coleman, Kenneth Boudreau shakes his head in frustration. The retired 28-year Chicago police officer worked as a support detective on Bridgeman's murder case and now is one of more than 10 current or former Chicago officers named in a lawsuit Ainsworth filed on Coleman's behalf in February. Cook County and the City of Chicago also are defendants. In similar cases, Ainsworth says, the plaintiff has received between $1 million and $2 million for each year of imprisonment, meaning a verdict or settlement for Coleman could potentially exceed $40 million.

Boudreau says the story is all too familiar for him. A suspect is arrested. He confesses. A jury finds him guilty. He says the confession was coerced and walks out of prison. Boudreau isn't exaggerating -- especially in Illinois. Of the 227 prisoners who have been exonerated after false confessions in the United States since 1989, 84 are from Illinois. New York is second with 39, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Law firms such as Loevy & Loevy insist a pressure to solve cases and rampant police misconduct have led to a litany of coerced confessions. The police point the finger right back, asserting it's the law firms' thirsty pursuit of big-money settlements that prompts the accused to exaggerate or even fabricate tales of coercion in hopes that doing so could lead to freedom.

In a six-part series titled "Cops and Confessions" in 2001 and '02, the Chicago Tribune highlighted more than a dozen murder cases in which Boudreau reportedly obtained confessions but then either charges were dropped or the defendant was found not guilty. Boudreau insists he has never threatened, struck or violated the constitutional rights of anyone, including Coleman. "Absolutely not," he says.

In the Coleman case, Boudreau says he spoke to Coleman at the family's home for 15 minutes. He was in the field talking to witnesses while police questioned Coleman. He believes he has been targeted because of his connection to many high-profile cases. He also worked under disgraced former Chicago police commander Jon Burge, who was sentenced to 4½ years for perjury for lying about police torture he oversaw. Boudreau says none of the claims against him has ever gone to a trial. Instead, the city has elected to negotiate settlements, which he says has led to the appearance of a perceived pattern of behavior that now comes up in every lawsuit in which he's named.

"It's not just garbage," Boudreau says. "It's a travesty of justice what they're doing to this system. If I'm a man in the penitentiary and I'm sitting there for the next 30, 40 years, you're damn right I'm going to think of any which way to get out. But now you get these attorneys involved and it's not only 'I'll help you out' but 'I'm going to make a couple million dollars doing it.'"

Boudreau said he was "floored" when the state issued Coleman a certificate of innocence with nary a fight. He concedes that the new DNA evidence warranted further investigation, perhaps even a new trial. But he doesn't believe it proves Coleman's innocence, as others suggest.

"There's factual innocence, and there's actual innocence," Boudreau says. "Factual innocence is 'factually I can't prove you're guilty.' Actual innocence is where you are actually innocent. And there's nobody here that's been actually innocent."


Burr Oak Cemetery, 16 miles southwest of Guaranteed Rate Field, is the final resting place for Bridgeman. Jon Lowenstein/NOOR for ESPN

BURR OAK CEMETERY
ALSIP, ILLINOIS
April 13, 2018

On a recent spring afternoon, as a bitterly cold Chicago winter finally began to thaw, the final resting place of Mikey Bridgeman, in the northeast corner of Burr Oak Cemetery, remained largely overlooked, save for a few leaves blowing past.

Chester Latham, now married and living in Iowa, still keeps in touch with the family. He summed up the Bridgemans' feelings about Coleman's release succinctly: "Total, straight-up bulls---," Latham says. "Something is wrong with this picture."

Latham understands there isn't DNA evidence directly linking Coleman, Fulton or Taylor to the murder scene. But he can't get over the fact that Coleman was the last person known to have seen her. And Fulton and Taylor had just harassed her weeks before. And the body was found in Coleman's basement.

"It's sick," he says. "F---ing sick."

The case represents the complexities that come with an exoneration. The questions, whispers and accusations. The lack of trust. Coleman is now free, with a clean record, back working with the White Sox. This summer, Ainsworth expects the state to cut Coleman a check for about $200,000, based on the length of his time in prison and his receipt of a certificate of innocence. After that, should he win a verdict or settle his civil case, Coleman likely will become a millionaire. But at what cost? Returning to a normal life isn't as easy as getting a job, renting an apartment and picking up where you left off. Not after two decades.

Given the certificate of innocence, Sexton says it is "extremely unlikely" that the state would ever attempt to try Coleman a second time for the murder of Mikey Bridgeman. Not only might double jeopardy be in play, Ainsworth added, but it would take significant "legal gymnastics" for a new trial to now take place.

In this case, there are only a few absolutes: Mikey Bridgeman was brutally raped and murdered just about the time she turned 20 years old. Her body was discovered in Nevest Coleman's basement. And the DNA evidence on Bridgeman's underwear doesn't match Coleman, Fulton or Taylor.

The biggest mystery surrounds those tiny molecules of DNA -- and what can and can't be drawn from them. Ainsworth says the semen sample taken from Bridgeman's underwear is "conclusive" and "entirely demonstrates" that neither his client nor Fulton had anything to do with Bridgeman's murder.

Boudreau and Sexton believe that's a stretch. "It just shows that she had recently had sex with somebody else," Sexton says.

Robin W. Cotton, the director of the Biomedical Forensic Sciences Program at Boston University, has testified in more than 200 criminal cases. She says a DNA sample matching someone besides Coleman and Fulton doesn't automatically prove their innocence. But she does understand why the state didn't feel confident it could retry the case.

"Regardless of what they might think, the question is what they can prove," Cotton says. "DNA is really good at saying, 'This DNA came from this person.' But how it got there and when it got there is not something you can get from the molecule. And that makes a difference."

Says Sexton: "I don't think we have the wrong guy. I believed then, as I do now, we had the right guy. Do I think he's guilty? Yes I do."

Nevest Coleman says Sexton is wrong. He had nothing to do with the death of Mikey Bridgeman. And he has a certificate of innocence that backs him up.

"It's a sad story," Coleman says. "But I'm not the one that done it. You know, that guy's still out there. One day they might get justice, you know? But it wasn't me."

Wayne DrehsDrehs is a senior writer for ESPN. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn.com.

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