Exonerated grounds crew member rejoins White Sox

Nevest Coleman was happy to be working again for the Chicago White Sox, and his old pals with the team were thrilled to have him back. In the 24 years between his stints as a grounds crew member, the 49-year-old was convicted of horrific crimes he didn’t commit, and he spent well over two decades behind bars before being exonerated by DNA evidence.

“They didn’t have to hire me back,” Coleman said Monday (via MLB.com), while basking in his long-awaited return to a ballpark that had seen plenty of changes during the intervening period. “I appreciate the White Sox giving me the opportunity to come back to work.”

Also appreciative were Jerry Powe and Harry Smith, who worked with Coleman in the early 1990s and are still with the team. They testified to his good character during his 1997 trial for first-degree murder and aggravated criminal sexual assault, and the pair were waiting for Coleman — with hugs — when he arrived at Chicago’s Guaranteed Rate Field.

“Glad to see him out. Glad to see him back,” said Powe, now Coleman’s supervisor (via the Chicago Tribune). “I’m so happy for him, me and the White Sox.”

“It was amazing just to see Jerry and Harry standing there to greet me when I came in,” Coleman said. “Just to see them outside waiting on me, it was a great feeling. To walk around on the field to see how the field is. … It’s totally different.”

In 1994, Coleman was early into his third season with the White Sox when he was arrested in connection with the brutal murder of 20-year-old Antwinica Bridgeman. According to Innocence Project, Chicago police coerced a false statement from him that implicated two other men, but Coleman and one of the other men went to trial three years later for the crimes.

Prosecutors reportedly pushed for the death penalty, but Coleman was handed a lengthy prison sentence, in part because of the testimony of Powe, Smith and others. In 2016, the case was reexamined and some of the evidence sent to a crime lab for DNA testing.

Those results excluded Coleman and the other man with whom he was sentenced, pointing instead to a man who had been convicted of several rapes and who lived near Bridgeman at the time. Coleman was released from prison in November, at which point he referred to the original name of the White Sox’ stadium in saying, “I want to sit back for a while, get to know my family, and when the time comes around, go back to Comiskey Park.”

“His first wish, before he wished for a hamburger, was to work for the White Sox,” a cousin, Richard Coleman, said Monday. “That’s exactly what I told [the team].”

“We’re grateful that after more than two decades, justice has been carried out for Nevest,” the White Sox, who interviewed and rehired Coleman after his release, said in a statement. “It has been a long time, but we’re thrilled that we have the opportunity to welcome him back to the White Sox family. We’re looking forward to having Nevest back on Opening Day at home in our ballpark.”

“He’s got the qualifications,” said Powe. “He had them then. He still has them now.”

What Coleman doesn’t have are firsthand memories of notable moments for the White Sox since 1994, particularly the team’s 2005 World Series triumph, its first since 1917. He said Monday he learned of the victory from a roar he heard in his prison cell.

The nightmarish experience that robbed Coleman of so much of his adulthood could have left him extremely embittered, and he noted that he was, indeed, “angry in there” and “upset that I was locked up.” However, he said that he realized that “you can’t take that anger back to the streets and to your family.”

“If I’m miserable, then everybody else around me will be miserable. If I’m angry, everybody else will be angry,” Coleman said. “Why be angry? It’s time to live my life now. I have my son, daughter, three grandbabies, sisters and brothers. I don’t need them to be miserable and angry because I am. I live day by day and do the best I can. There isn’t any sense being angry anymore.”

White Sox fans might be in a less-than-pleasant mood come Opening Day, should rain interrupt the first game of the season. Coleman, on the other hand, claimed to be rooting for just such a scenario, one that would give him a chance to shine after so many dark years.

“I hope it does rain, so I can run on the field and put the tarp out,” Coleman told MLB.com. “I can go on the field, get soaking wet and cover the field up.” – By Des Bieler, Washington Post