York City murderer who turned down deal gets 56 years to life

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Kwilson Coleman

A York City murderer who has served a decade in prison could have accepted a deal with prosecutors that came with a 15-year sentence.

Instead, Kwilson Coleman — after being granted a retrial by an appellate court — rolled the dice that he would be exonerated at his retrial last summer.

The miscalculation will cost him dearly.

Coleman, 27, appeared in York County Court on Thursday, April 4, to be sentenced a second time for shooting Gregory Wright multiple times, including as the mortally wounded Wright tried to crawl to safety.

A jury at his July retrial convicted him of first- and third-degree murder. He originally was convicted of first-degree murder and automatically sentenced to life without parole. In Pennsylvania, it's the only possible sentence for adults convicted of first- or second-degree murder.

But people convicted of those offenses as juveniles can no longer face an automatic life sentence, because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled automatic life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional.

On Thursday, presiding Common Pleas Judge Gregory M. Snyder sentenced Coleman to 56 years to life, saying Coleman poses a substantial threat to the public.

'Damning' evidence: "He continues to claim his innocence despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary," the judge said. "That does not bode well, I believe, for his eventual rehabilitation."

Snyder cited Coleman's significant and violent criminal history prior to his being locked up at age 17 as a factor in his decision.

Summing up the testimony of forensic psychiatrist Dr. Larry Rotenberg, who examined Coleman, the judge characterized Coleman as an antisocial narcissist who has a sense of entitlement and a lack of conscience.

Rotenberg's testimony indicated that as a child, Coleman tended to bully others, stole money from his grandmother, shoplifted, was truant, was expelled from school, ran away and got into fights.

He did several stints in juvenile detention and dropped out of high school in ninth grade, according to testimony Thursday. Coleman earned his general equivalency diploma while in state prison.

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Antisocial, narcissistic: Under questioning by deputy prosecutor Steph Lombardo, the doctor said he has diagnosed Coleman as having mixed personality disorder, with antisocial and narcissistic features.

Coleman has "a lack of conscience structure (and) a lack of an ability to empathize with others," Rotenberg testified, adding that personality disorders "tend to burn out" once people hit middle age.

"The best treatment for it is time — and the more time the better," Rotenberg said, adding that time must be measured in decades, not years.

Defense attorney Rick Robinson questioned Rotenberg about York County Children and Youth records that the doctor reviewed. They indicate Coleman's childhood wasn't always a happy one.

He and his siblings suffered lead poisoning as children and at times lived in what caseworkers described as "squalid filth" in a roach-filled home with a broken toilet.

Coleman spent two years in foster care, starting when he was about 7, after his parents were arrested and incarcerated for selling drugs.

The defendant took the stand Thursday, testifying he hopes to someday get out of prison and build a life with his son, who is now 9 years old.

"I call him every week," Coleman testified.

He said he's considering learning a trade or taking college courses in prison but doesn't yet know what kind of training he's interested in pursuing.

Only a gravestone: Wright's stepmother, Gina Stough, spoke in court about the effect his murder has had on her family.

"Greg was a joy to be around. He always had a smile on his face," she told the judge. "He did not deserve what happened to him. His family did not deserve what happened to him."

She blasted Coleman in court.

"You didn't even know him," she said. "Ten years we've had to live with this. We miss him every day. ... All we have of him is a gravestone."

Stough told Coleman, "I hope you get the chance ... to make yourself a better person," but said it won't make up for his crime.

The background: Coleman was 17 when he was arrested for gunning down Wright in the 400 block of Prospect Street on Nov. 27, 2008. Charged as an adult and first convicted in October 2009, Coleman was serving a life sentence.

He calmly shot Wright numerous times at close range after Wright, 20, pistol-whipped and robbed a buddy of Coleman's, according to testimony from his first trial.

Wright ran away but fell to the ground after bullets shattered his thigh bone and the bones in one of his arms, prosecutors said.

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At that point, Wright began crawling away and screaming, but Coleman kept firing, according to trial testimony. The ninth and final bullet slammed into Wright's back, killing him, prosecutors said.

Coleman was granted a retrial after appealing his conviction in federal court, asking for a new trial based on issues with eyewitnesses, including whether they were able to identify him in a photo lineup. Prosecutors concurred a new trial would be in the interests of justice.

Other crimes: Coleman also is serving time for another shooting, which happened 10 days before Wright's slaying.

He pleaded guilty to aggravated assault for the Nov. 17, 2008, shooting of Theadric Williams outside the Cable House high-rise apartment building and was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison.

In 2007, when Coleman was 16, he was charged as an adult with robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery in seven cases by York City Police.

Charges were dropped in four of those cases, but Coleman pleaded guilty to robbery and conspiracy in one case, and conspiracy in another, court records state. He was sentenced to 11½ to 23 months in county prison.

Police said he was part of a violent gang-related robbery crew allegedly responsible for more than a dozen robberies of individuals and businesses.

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.