'You're free to go,' judge tells men who had been serving life for 1994 rape and murder

Standing in front of the same judge who two decades ago sentenced them to life in prison for rape and murder, Nevest Coleman and Darryl Fulton listened Friday as prosecutors updated their case.

Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Eric Sussman said his office had reviewed all DNA testing in the case and would not seek a retrial for the men, who were released from prison last week.

Family of the men applauded before being shushed by a sheriff’s officer. Judge Dennis Porter looked at Coleman and Fulton, informed them the charges were dropped, and said, “You’re free to go.”

With that, Coleman and Fulton’s 23-year saga of imprisonment prompted by alleged forced confessions was over.

While recent forensic testing was enough to free both men, prosecutors said Friday it is not enough to pursue new charges in the case even though the evidence matches someone in the national crime scene DNA database.

“DNA detected on an article of clothing worn by the victim in this case matched the profile of an individual whose DNA profile was in the national CODIS database,” state’s attorney’s office spokesman Robert Foley said in a statement. “This evidence was considered in the State's Attorney's Office's decision not to retry Mr. Fulton or Mr. Coleman. However, the State’s Attorney’s Office has concluded that the available evidence, including the DNA evidence, is not sufficient to support a prosecution of any other individual for this crime.”

Antwinica Bridgeman disappeared in April 1994 after her 20th birthday celebration, and her body was found weeks later in the basement of the building where Coleman lived in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.

Semen from Bridgeman’s underwear matches someone linked to at least three assaults, prosecutors have said previously. That person has not been publicly identified.

Fulton, 50, and Coleman, 48, were released from prison last week after partial DNA testing indicated they might be innocent, but the possibility of a retrial lingered until Friday’s decision.

Moments after the court hearing, Fulton’s mother embraced her son and cried. Coleman hugged a cousin as his sisters stood nearby.

“The sun is shining. It’s a beautiful day,” Fulton said in the courthouse lobby. “It’s a great time to be free. It’s been a long time coming.”

Coleman said he was relieved by the prosecutors’ decision.

"I don't want to come back to this courtroom no more," Coleman said.

No physical evidence ever linked Coleman and Fulton to the attack, a Tribune review of more than 2,500 pages of court records and police reports previously found. Both men were convicted after confessing to police detectives who, records show, have a history of misconduct, including allegations they coerced false statements.

Coleman and Fulton’s cases are the latest for a Cook County justice system that continues to grapple with allegations of coerced confessions and cases overturned by DNA findings.

Over the years, civil rights attorneys and others have criticized local law enforcement, including prosecutors, for being slow to respond to concerns over convictions. State’s Attorney Kim Foxx was elected last year after pledging to be more open to innocence claims.

On Friday, Coleman’s attorney, Russell Ainsworth, called for prosecutors to investigate work by detectives in this case.

“We need to review the cases to determine whether other innocent men have been wrongfully convicted in the same exact manner as Nevest Coleman and Darryl Fulton,” Ainsworth said.

Also Friday, Fulton’s attorney filed a federal civil rights complaint against the city, county, several police officers and a former prosecutor. The suit alleges “egregious misconduct” by officials who put Fulton away “for crimes in which he had no involvement.”

Coleman and Fulton were convicted in their mid-20s and spent most of the last two decades at Menard Correctional Center, about 60 miles south of St. Louis. In that time, Fulton wrote several letters proclaiming his innocence and asking for help.

In 2014, Fulton sent one of those letters to the conviction integrity unit of the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. Fulton recalled that February 2016, he was told there would be DNA testing in his and Coleman’s cases. The results led to the inmates’ eventual freedom.

About two weeks after Bridgeman’s 1994 disappearance, Coleman’s mother, Cecelia, asked Coleman to find the source of a foul stench at their graystone in the 900 block of West Garfield Boulevard, records show.

That led Coleman and a friend outside to the basement, which was not accessible from inside the home. They couldn’t open the door so they looked through a window, records show.

“Oh my God, there is a body,” Coleman said, according to the friend’s statement to prosecutors. Coleman told his mother, and she called police.

Police zeroed in on Coleman and Fulton, who lived nearby. After being taken to the police station, Coleman and Fulton went from denying they harmed Bridgeman to giving a chilling account of the slaying. The confessions were the result of abuse and coercion, they said.

An unidentified detective called Coleman “a lying-assed n-----” then hit Coleman twice in the face with a fist, Coleman testified during a pretrial hearing.

Fulton claims officials showed him what they said was Coleman’s statement and told him to confess. At one point, a detective came into the room, hit him on the side of the head, and said, “I should take you somewhere and put a bullet in your brain,” Fulton recalled to the Tribune.

During the interrogation, Fulton said he told officials he could “only make something up.”

“I was desperate at that point, and I felt like I didn’t have a way out,” he said. “I made something up.”

At the time of his arrest, Coleman had no criminal history and was a member of the groundskeeping crew at Comiskey Park. Both men recanted their confessions but were convicted anyway.

Just before appearing in court Friday, Coleman spotted Fulton for the first time since regaining their freedom.

Coleman hugged Fulton’s mother, whom he knew from their neighborhood, introduced himself to the rest of his co-defendant's family and finally embraced Fulton.

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