Chicago groundskeeper spent 23 years in prison before name cleared in crime
BY GREGORY PRATT
CHICAGO – Nevest Coleman looked around the Chicago White Sox ballpark in wonder as he walked down the third base line.
Flanked by colleagues, Harry Smith and Jerry Powe, Coleman marveled at how much the stadium had changed since 1994, when he last worked for the team.
As he took in the sights, legendary head groundskeeper Roger “The Sodfather” Bossard came over and embraced Coleman in a quick hug.
“I saved your spot for you,” Bossard said. “I knew you’d be back.”
And he told him, “Just remember, I’m counting on you to help me with that tarp, too.”
“I’m ready,” Coleman replied.
Rape, murder charge
Coleman’s first day back at work Monday couldn’t be more remarkable. He’d been on the White Sox groundskeeping crew in 1994 when he was charged with a heinous rape and murder.
He spent the next 23 years behind bars until DNA evidence last November led prosecutors to vacate Coleman’s conviction, leading to his freedom. A Cook County judge granted him a certificate of innocence this month, clearing his name.
Soon after, the White Sox agreed to give him his old job back, helping Coleman realize a dream he often discussed in prison.
Local and national news reporters waited for Coleman’s return at 7 a.m. Smith stood outside the stadium, too, waiting for his old friend.
As Coleman approached Gate 4 at Guaranteed Rate Field, Smith remarked, “He got a little fatter, but that’s him.”
The two men hugged one another, and went inside, where Coleman, Smith and Powe shared a private moment in the tunnel leading to the field.
Back in the 1990s, the three men worked together on the grounds crew.
Prosecutors pushed for Coleman to receive the death penalty after his trial in 1997, but a long line of character witnesses stood up for him at his sentencing hearing, including three White Sox employees.
‘Happy for him’
Smith and Powe remain, while the other no longer works for the team. Powe is now Coleman’s supervisor.
“Glad to see him out. Glad to see him back,” Powe said. “I’m so happy for him, me and the White Sox.”
From the time he left high school, Coleman said he’s been on the job. He always wanted to be independent.
“I don’t like to ask anybody for anything,” Coleman told the Tribune last week — a point he emphasized again Monday.
Proud of work
Even while incarcerated, Coleman kept working, including a job making socks. Still, he particularly enjoyed his time with the Sox and said he considered it a “family.”
“I’d wake up in the morning proud to go to work,” Coleman said Monday. “A lot of times, you get people who get jobs, you go to work, you be like, ‘I don’t want to go.’ Here, I loved it.”
His Monday morning included a flurry of interviews. He sat in the home dugout talking to reporters.
At times, Coleman gazed at the giant advertisements, billboards, and television in the outfield, amazed by the changes.
Reflecting on his newfound freedom, Coleman said, “You get tired sitting around the house.”
“You won’t be sitting” here, Smith replied.
Dreamed of return
After about an hour reuniting with his friends, Coleman changed into a yellow rubber suit. He put on gloves and goggles then headed outside, where Power handed him a power washer to spray the ground clean.
The fairy tale return for Coleman was set in motion by friends and loved ones after he left prison in November. Speaking of his plans after his release, Coleman often mentioned the White Sox.
“I want to sit back for a while, get to know my family, and when the time comes around, go back to Comiskey Park,” Coleman recalled saying.
A team decision
The White Sox heard his story, then invited him to 35th and Shields for a job interview. To Coleman’s delight, the team agreed to bring him back.
“We’re grateful that after more than two decades, justice has been carried out for Nevest,” the team 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.”