Gerald Coleman sighed, stared downward and tapped on a lectern. He had just received a 15-year sentence for a fatal shooting at a 7th Ward dice game.
But before the man in the orange jumpsuit was led away to prison Monday, he had something to say to the victim’s family.
“I can’t say I understand what y’all going through because I don’t, but I’ve felt the pain also for my friends that have passed away,” Coleman said. “I just hope and pray that y’all continue to keep me in your prayers, and I’ll do the same.”
Coleman’s statement put an end to a case that lingered in the courts since his arrest nearly two years ago for the December 2014 killing of Roland West, the 40-year-old father of several children.
Relatives of West bemoaned what they saw as a light sentence but extended their forgiveness at Monday's hearing.
Coleman, 27, faced the possibility of life in prison on counts of second-degree murder, armed robbery and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors said they agreed to reduce his charges in light of a weak case.
Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Keva Landrum-Johnson imposed Coleman's sentence.
“It’s not right for you to walk with 15 years,” West’s sister, Angela Davis, said as a series of relatives spoke during tearful victim-impact testimony. “But I want you to know that you do have a chance to repent for the crime that you did and the sin that you did, taking my brother’s life.”
District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro said the case against Coleman was hobbled by reluctant witnesses who preferred to stay in the shadows rather than speak up for their slain friend.
West was playing dice with at least three other men in the 1500 block of North Roman Street on the night of Dec. 5, 2014, when an armed robber approached, according to authorities. The gunman ordered everyone to leave. Then he followed West to an abandoned lot.
West fought back, police said, but he was shot several times and left to die in the overgrowth.
One of West’s friends who was part of the dice game said he didn’t see the killer and refused to cooperate beyond that, according to Cannizzaro. Another man who refused to give his name to police said he saw the killer stash a bloody sweatshirt around the corner.
Police found the sweatshirt, which had DNA from Coleman, West and a third person, according to prosecutors.
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Cannizzaro said an anonymous tipster fingered Coleman as the killer. The tipster also told police that Coleman was shot during a struggle with West.
That information lined up with the fact that Coleman appeared at a hospital with a gunshot wound to his leg the same day that West was killed. Still, prosecutors said they would never have been able to introduce the tipster’s story to a jury because it was hearsay.
“This person is not willing to come forward; this person is not even willing to give his name. The police never see him again,” Cannizzaro said. “I feel very bad for these victims, I feel very bad for the family, but again I was faced with a choice here. I could not go to trial because I had no admissible evidence against this defendant.”
Davis and other family members said they were bothered that Coleman will walk free one day. But they pointed to their faith in God to explain why they forgave him.
“Every time you close your eyes, I want you to see my brother’s face. He was a good man,” Davis told Coleman.