Profiles in Justice: Paralegal Lauryn Coleman
“The Anthony Wright case was what led me to want to be a lawyer because the victim was my family member,” says Lauryn Coleman, the great-great niece of a woman who was murdered in Philadelphia three decades ago. Wright was wrongfully convicted in 1991 and served 25 years in prison for crimes he did not commit — and which remain unsolved, as the man likely responsible for the crime died before he could be arrested and held accountable for Louise Talley’s death.
Coleman, a native Philadelphian, attended Temple University where she majored in Social Work and later transferred to the University of Miami where she majored in Human and Social Development and minored in Criminology. She interned with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project her junior year of college.
Coleman wasn’t born yet when her family suffered the tragic loss of her great-great -aunt. “It was just something that I grew up hearing about and my mom talked about a lot,” she recalls. Coleman was in high school when she happened to see a random tweet from a local news station that mentioned her aunt’s name. It stated that the man who was convicted for her murder was not a DNA match to the perpetrator.
DNA testing later revealed that a man named Ronnie Byrd was likely the actual perpetrator in the 1991 case. “I showed my mom, and we both started advocating for his release and freedom.” Coleman and her mother initiated a Change.org petition for Wright’s release in response to the prior District Attorney, Seth Williams, retrying Wright’s case despite the exculpatory DNA evidence.
Coleman added that family members also remained convinced of Wright’s guilt. But for most of her family, putting a face to the name of the perpetrator provided closure. “That’s what makes me so passionate about being a lawyer. I want to work for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Unit or the Innocence Project one day.”
Upon Wright’s release, Coleman and her mother met Wright and continued their advocacy by initiating a GoFundMe campaign on his behalf, raising thousands of dollars for him. “When we met Tony, we were both a little nervous, as he was in prison for 25 years. We didn’t know what to expect. But, when you meet him, he’s a great person. He’s not bitter. He’s happy and blessed to be free. To see him be reunited with his son and his friends and family was just beautiful. Now I call him my uncle Tony − he came to my college graduation and we just stayed in touch and he’s like family now.”
In May of 2019, Coleman was hired as a paralegal in the CIU and currently works on processing pro se applications of incarcerated individuals who assert a wrongful conviction or unfair trial. She believes that her open-mindedness and lived experience growing up in West Philadelphia makes her an ideal person to look at these claims and decipher them. “Having seen the violence and the way things are in those neighborhoods, it tracks for me that these would be the people who are being wrongfully convicted. It’s not affluent people, but people from neighborhoods like mine, who don’t have a parent, or a friend who’s a lawyer to say, ‘Hey, don’t talk to [the police] without me.’” Coleman references Wright’s case as an example of how young people of color from low-income neighborhoods are particularly vulnerable to police and prosecutorial misconduct.
“It’s almost like you’re the perfect target for that, because no one’s going to come in and save you. So, it just makes it more meaningful and it makes it more urgent to do this work and to right those wrongs.”
In discussing the mark she wants to make in the legal world, Coleman says “It’s super important to me, as a Black woman, to be visible to other young Black girls who may be dreaming of becoming attorneys. Secondly, I want to help fix a broken system with regards to mass incarceration, as some of the smartest people are in prison. I want to be one of the justice warriors, fighting to reunite families and give people back to the societies that they were unjustly taken from.”
Coleman enjoys girls’ nights with friends, spending time with family, cooking, and watching true crime movies. Coleman plans to start law school in August of 2021.