The jury’s decision to convict Coleman pushed both his wife and his mother to tears. But when Coleman returned to Rikers and got on the telephone, nobody could believe how he sounded. “He’s like, ‘Hey, how you doing, man?’ ” says Jonathan “Kwame” Owusu, who was his manager. “He was upbeat. It didn’t make any sense.”
Three weeks later, a judge sentenced him to fifteen years to life. “I was happy,” Coleman recalls. “It sounds crazy to say you were happy about getting a fifteen-to-life sentence, but I was. It just seemed to me like the end of a nightmare … I was living in 1993 for seventeen years.”
Today, Trevell Coleman is prisoner No. 12-A-2293 at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison some 240 miles from East Harlem. Now 38, he won’t be eligible for parole until soon after his 51st birthday, near the end of 2025. And even then, there is no guarantee that the parole board will release him.
One morning in August, he sits in a prison visiting room wearing his usual attire: forest-green sweatshirt, matching green pants a size too big, white canvas sneakers. Rosary beads and a cross dangle from his neck, tucked inside his sweatshirt. A few white hairs dot his black goatee.
It has been four months since his trial ended, and while he no longer seems buoyant, he insists he has no regrets. “I don’t know how me being incarcerated—I can’t measure how much it makes anything any better,” he says. “But I just know what I had to do.”
While on Rikers awaiting trial, he wrote a memoir—300-plus pages, handwritten—almost all of it in rhyme. Writing comes more easily to him these days, he says, since he’s no longer high all the time—and no longer preoccupied with the past. “It wasn’t something I was going through periodically; it was something that was like a knot at all times,” he says, curling one hand into a fist. “Sometimes I didn’t even want to walk with my head up. I just wanted to look down. If I stood up, I felt funny, like, ‘Who am I to be looking up?’ ”
From the time he was a child, Coleman would always tell his mother, “I love you, Ma.” She never doubted his sincerity, but for the past nineteen years he barely ever looked at her when he said these words, instead casting his eyes down and uttering the sentence as if it were a question. On September 15, his mother and wife drove up to Elmira to see him. They sat together at a table in the visiting room, and when he said, “I love you, Ma,” he held his head up and looked her straight in the eye.