Photo courtesy of the DOC

A habeas corpus petition filed in 2005 by hunger striking inmate William Coleman inched forward Wednesday after a brief status conference before a Rockville judge but not before the judge denied an odd request from Coleman’s attorney to set a December trial date in the case.

The petition, written in Coleman’s own hand, seeks a new criminal trial on grounds that his lawyer was ineffective or a finding that he’s actually innocent.

Coleman claims he was falsely accused by his wife of rape while their relationship was deteriorating and after he had filed a motion for custody for their two children. He has said in statements issued by the American Civil Liberties Union and other materials that he is protesting a justice system susceptible to false criminal accusations made by spouses locked in contentious divorce or custody disputes. He says police and prosecutors failed to perform any investigation of his wife’s accusations. He is now divorced.

Coleman also claims his attorney, former Waterbury lawyer Michael Gannon, failed to represent him competently, calling no witnesses, among other failings. Gannon’s license to practice law was later suspended by the state after he was found to have violated the rules in over 10 cases. 

Coleman, 48, a British national who was living in Waterbury at the time of his spousal rape conviction lost an appeal last year and has been on a hunger strike since September 2007.

The status conference Wednesday was the first court activity of any kind in the three-year-old case. 

A petition of habeas corpus, or the “Great Writ”  protects against illegal imprisonment.

His attorney Kalisha Raphael, an assistant public defender in the habeas corpus unit, requested the December date even though papers needed to ready the case for trial have never been filed in the case. 

“Mr. Coleman is currently on a hunger protest and although he has indicated it is unrelated to this habeas petition the goal is to set a trial date as soon as possible,” Raphael said in explaining her request to the judge.

Cynthia Serafini, the Waterbury prosecutor who won Coleman’s conviction and is defending the Department of Correction against the habeas petition, asked for a scheduling order instead. 

“For the record your honor, there is not even an amended petition filed,” she said, referring to the rewrite of inmate-written petitions by their attorneys that are filed in habeas corpus cases.

After initially ordering the parties to consult on a proposed scheduling order in the case, District Judge John Nazzaro changed his mind after a recess and a lengthy off the record sidebar with Raphael and Serafini. He ordered another status conference for December 10.  Raphael told Nazzaro she would file an amended petition before then.

The sidebar was the only one held in over 50 status conferences that moved at a steady clip all morning in Nazzaro’s court. Most of the habeas cases on Wednesday’s docket were filed in 2005.

After the amended petition is filed by Coleman’s attorney,  the state will have 30 days to respond to it. Pleadings continue to progress this way according to court rules or a judge’s orders until the issues are fully briefed, making a December trial date seem impossible.

Coleman’s petition has been frozen in time since 2005 because of a request from Raphael, who said in a motion she needed to review the transcripts of Coleman’s criminal case and might need to request more of them. Raphael’s motion and the judge’s order granting it put the ball squarely in Raphael’s court for moving the case forward again. It is not clear when she received transcripts or when she began investigating Coleman’s case. Coleman’s unsuccessful criminal appeal, separate from the habeas petition, was pending before the appellate court until last year

Adele Patterson, who oversees the habeas corpus unit, and Raphael declined to comment Wednesday and did not return earlier telephone calls seeking comment.

Brian Carlow, deputy chief public defender, declined to comment in an October telephone interview citing attorney client privilege when asked if the three-year freeze was necessary to investigate Coleman’s habeas claims, typically a time consuming task; or to buy time for a habeas unit with a heavy caseload; or for some other reason. 

The time it takes for a “trial ready” habeas case to go to trial has increased lately from 18 months to about 30 months, according to a source in the Rockville courthouse where the judiciary consolidated habeas petitions in 2003.  The centralization of habeas cases in one court with staff and two judges dedicated solely to habeas cases improved their management,  according to the Rockville clerk’s office.  Additional judges are assigned temporarily to assist from time to time, which Nazzaro announced in court was imminent. 

The slow wheels of justice in Coleman’s case present a problem.  He was sentenced to serve 8 years of a 15-year sentence. He is half way through that sentence and will be released no later than December 2012. The closer an inmate is to freedom, the harder it is to celebrate winning a new trial through a habeas: if he is convicted again after a second trial,  he could be sentenced to serve the balance of his 15-year sentence.  If he forgoes a new trial, he will be required to register as a sex offender.  He also faces possible deportation to England.

Coleman lived on a liquid diet for a year ending in September when he announced that he would cut out liquids.  Shortly after this the Department of Correction began forcing liquids intravenously and then began force-feeding him through a tube inserted in his nose. Correction Commissioner Theresa Lantz won a court order in January authorizing the procedure if it became necessary to preserve his health. Coleman had lost about 130 pounds by September, down from about 245, according to the Connecticut ACLU, which is defending his right to protest. The DOC has denied press requests to interview Coleman in person.

The ACLU will challenge the order in a bench trial set for January on the grounds that Coleman has the right to refuse medical treatment and proceed with his hunger strike as free speech.