Judge William Coleman, who presided over Sheriff Mike Byrd’s trial, remembered as state’s go-to judge

Judge William Coleman presided over the trial of former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd. Coleman died on May 31. (file photo)
Judge William Coleman presided over the trial of former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd. Coleman died on May 31. (file photo)
Judge William Coleman presided over the trial of former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd. Coleman died on May 31. (file photo)

JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — For the Mississippi Supreme Court, former Circuit Judge William F. Coleman was the go-to guy — the first choice to fill-in when other judges were unable for whatever reason to handle cases.

Coleman presided over dozens of cases — both small and headline-grabbing — after his retirement from the full-time bench.

He died May 31 at the age of 84 — just months after he presided over the sentencing of former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd. Byrd had pleaded guilty to state charges of intimidating a witness.

“He was very unselfish in accepting appointments to cases long after his retirement and did not hesitate to preside over cases that no other judge was willing to accept,” Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr. said of Coleman.

Waller said Coleman was offering his services almost up to the time of his death. “He was truly a dedicated public servant, a stalwart of justice and one who was always committed to the rule of law,” Waller added.

Coleman served for 20 years as a circuit court judge in Hinds County. Former Gov. Cliff Finch appointed him to the bench on Oct. 1, 1976. He retired on Dec. 31, 1996 — but only from full-time work.

Mississippi law allowing the appointment of special judges — also called senior judges — dates to 1989. These stand-in judges are used in a variety of circumstances, not just to prevent the appearance of conflict of interest. Reasons could include illness or a vacancy on the bench because of death.

In an interview in 2000, Coleman said he wanted to continue to hear some cases after he retired four years earlier.

“I guess it seems like I’m busy since I have handled some high-profile cases,” Coleman said.

In addition to handling trials, Coleman said he has been busy as a mediator in civil cases.

“I enjoy the work and it keeps me busy,” he had said.

Coleman is credited for creating a public defender office for Hinds County and supporting a statewide court administrator system. He oversaw the remodeling of the Hinds County Courthouse in Jackson.

While on the bench in Hinds County, Coleman presided over two high profile trials of Marion Albert Pruett in the 1980s.

Pruett killed five people and was executed in Arkansas in 1999. He received a life sentence in Mississippi for the 1981 death of Peggy Lowe, a bank employee. Pruett also was convicted of killing two convenience store workers in Colorado and his common-law wife in New Mexico in 1981, while he was in the witness-protection program.

As a special judge, Coleman presided over the conspiracy trials of people indicted in a scheme to swindle the multimillion-dollar estate of invalid businessman Jack Diamond of Picayune between 1995 and 1996.

In 2008, Coleman took over for Judge Henry Lackey a case involving $26.5 million in legal fees that led to bribery charges against high-powered lawyer Richard “Dickie” Scruggs and others. Lackey withdrew from the case after he began working with federal authorities in the bribery investigation.

In 2013, Coleman heard arguments in the bitterly disputed election for mayor of Hattiesburg. After weeks of testimony, Coleman ordered a new election be held, which was won by incumbent Johnny DuPree.

Between those cases were routine cases involving asbestos, embezzlement, public corruption and other offenses.

“He didn’t shy away from the tough cases. He had to make some hard decisions … and he wasn’t scared to rule the way he believed. He wasn’t scared of politics. He wasn’t scared of having to run for election,” said Thomas Fortner, who was appointed by Coleman as Hinds County’s first full-time public defender in 1991.