A federal appellate court is considering whether to grant former Mehlville Fire Protection District firefighter James Kornhardt and former MFPD Board of Directors candidate Steven Mueller a retrial, more than a year after a jury found the men guilty of conspiracy and murder-for-hire.
Lawyers for Kornhardt and Mueller recently argued their clients’ appeal before the Eighth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
On June 14, 2010, following a weeklong trial, a federal jury found Kornhardt and Mueller guilty of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire in the October 1992 death of Danny Coleman of St. Louis. Kornhardt also was convicted of obstruction of justice. The two men were sentenced last September to life in prison.
Karen Coleman, Danny’s wife, also was charged with conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire but pleaded guilty shortly before the trial. She testified for the prosecution at trial and was sentenced in August to 20 years in prison. Kornhardt and Mueller did not testify.
Defense attorneys at the trial tore into the prosecution’s case through several days of lengthy, and often aggressive, cross-examination. They told the jury in closing arguments that the government’s witnesses weren’t credible and that its evidence did not implicate Kornhardt or Mueller in Danny Coleman’s death.
Erin Griebel, Kornhardt’s attorney on appeal, told a federal judicial panel June 16 that the admission of Mueller’s statements to investigators — relayed to the jury by agent Theodore Heitzler of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco — and Mueller’s grand jury testimony was “unconstitutional.”
Kornhardt’s defense was unable to cross-examine Mueller’s incriminating statements, a violation of the Confrontation Clause in the Sixth Amendment, she argued. Such a violation could be harmless if the other evidence against Kornhardt was “overwhelming,” Griebel said.
“But if we look to the remaining evidence in this case, what we have are the witnesses who, I think a fair reading would say they were not highly credible because of cross-examination at trial. Karen Coleman by her own words is a serial and admitted liar,” Griebel said in an audio recording of the oral arguments. “We have this matchbook with a cellophane wrapper that has two fingerprints — a piece of evidence the government had for nearly 10 years and didn’t feel it was sufficient to proceed on.
“One of the fingerprints is unidentifiable; one is James Kornhardt. It exists on a piece of evidence that is a commonly passed item — a matchbook — frequently borrowed and sometimes not returned.”
Steve Stenger, Mueller’s attorney, argued that the trial court erred in denying his client a thorough mental evaluation and proper competency hearing before the trial.
“I felt that it was appropriate,” Stenger said during oral arguments. “The reasons that I cited for asking for the mental evaluation was that my client at the time was delusional. He was having hallucinations. He believed that he could speak directly to God. He was having suicidal ideations … I was having great difficulty in preparing the case with my client. And my client was extraordinarily distracted and was finding it very difficult and just simply was not focusing on the task at hand, which was to prepare for trial.”
Asked if he was contending that Mueller was not competent to stand trial, Stenger said, “…(W)e don’t know the answer to the question of whether my client was competent to stand trial because a thorough hearing and a full hearing I would say … was never conducted despite our request to do so …”
Prosecutors said Karen Coleman in 1990 recruited prison inmate Larry Nolan to arrange her husband’s death. Nolan recruited Kornhardt to carry out the murder, and Kornhardt asked Mueller, his longtime friend, to help him, prosecutors said.
Kornhardt and Mueller murdered Danny Coleman shortly after 5 p.m. on Oct. 22, 1992, in the central room of a house in the 7800 block of Michigan Avenue in south St. Louis city, prosecutors said. They then placed Danny Coleman’s body in his own pickup truck, drove the truck to an isolated field off Interstate 44 in Franklin County, doused the truck with gasoline and set the vehicle on fire.
Authorities discovered Danny Coleman’s body in the truck later that evening. A search of the field the next day yielded, among other evidence, a box of matches containing two sets of fingerprints. Investigators eventually matched one set to Kornhardt.
Karen Coleman collected thousands of dollars on various insurance policies that were payable upon her husband’s death, prosecutors said. Kornhardt eventually was paid $15,000 for the murder, prosecutors said. Mueller was paid $1,000 to $1,200 for his participation, they said.
Nolan died in 1997 in prison. Two years later, a fellow inmate revealed to authorities that Nolan had told him Karen Coleman and Kornhardt were involved in Danny Coleman’s murder, prosecutors said.
Karen Coleman and Kornhardt were arrested and indicted in December 2008 on conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire charges.
Investigators identified Mueller in a December 2008 recorded telephone call Kornhardt made from jail to his Dittmer home.
Mueller gradually admitted his involvement in the murder during interviews with investigators. Mueller, of Oakville, was arrested in April 2009 and charged with conspiracy and murder-for-hire. Kornhardt later was charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying a firearm, silencer and ammunition prosecutors say were used to kill Danny Coleman.
Mueller told investigators he retrieved the items from Kornhardt’s home and threw them off the Jefferson Barracks bridge.