Raphael Warnock Blames Brother's Drug Conviction on Systemic Racism. Court Records Tell a Different Story.

Sen. Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.) / Getty Images
June 13, 2022

When he talks about racism in the U.S. justice system, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D., Ga.) often cites the case of his older brother—a "first-time," "nonviolent" drug offender who was sentenced to life in prison due to a "pandemic of racism," according to the senator.

Warnock has compared his half-brother, whose full name is Keith Coleman, to black victims of police shootings, attributed his imprisonment to the "stigma of color and criminality," and praised his early release in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic as a day of "hope" for the justice system.

But hundreds of pages of court records reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon tell a more complicated story: Coleman was a cop with the Savannah Police Department when he was convicted of facilitating a cross-country cocaine trafficking operation in 1996 and 1997—and once warned that he could send a drug dealer’s "black ass" to prison if the dealer didn’t pay Coleman more money.

The details conflict with Warnock’s accounts, which omit that Coleman was a police officer and portray him as a victim of law enforcement corruption rather than a participant in it.

"[My brother] was a first-time offender, convicted of a nonviolent drug-related offense, in which no one got hurt, no one died, no one even got high because the federal government basically created the sting operation," said Warnock in a June 2020 speech to the American Jewish Archives.

After the death of Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man who was fatally shot by an Atlanta police officer while resisting arrest in 2020, Warnock said, "It has become too common to counsel families grieving from unjust loss, like that of Rayshard Brooks, or to grieve from separation."

"I have known this pain personally, and my family has experienced it over the last 22 years of my brother’s incarceration," Warnock said.

The records also highlight the tension between the senator’s public statements railing against police misconduct and his personal efforts to support a family member convicted of police misconduct.

Warnock has denounced "lawless vigilantes pretending to be police," and opined during a sermon that "you can sometimes wear the colors of the state and behave like a thug." Yet he has also lobbied for years to free his brother and privately sought a presidential pardon from former president Barack Obama.

In November 1995, the FBI launched an undercover sting campaign called "Operation Broken Oath" to investigate whistleblower tips about dirty cops within the Savannah Police Department, according to a pretrial investigative report by the bureau. The probe ensnared nearly a dozen police officers who agreed to provide paid security for undercover FBI agents and informants posing as cocaine traffickers.

One of these officers was Coleman, who quickly became a ringleader in the illegal scheme, using his police-issued handgun and car to escort the purported drug dealers as they drove kilos of cocaine to airports, hotels, and warehouses, according to prosecutors.

Coleman reportedly recruited four fellow cops to provide security, boasting to them the operation was bringing in cocaine by the "goddamn truckloads."

"I know my guys," Coleman told one undercover agent, referring to the officers he recruited. "They loyal to me and they gonna do whatever I tell them."

Coleman negotiated and distributed the illegal payoffs for the security services, often pocketing portions of the money that was intended to go to the other cops, according to prosecutors.

Coleman "continued to push for more work and more money." He demanded higher payments after an undercover agent posing as a drug dealer offered him $1,500 for one cocaine-trafficking job.

"If I knowed I was fucking with a motherfucker off the corner who can't afford [to pay me] no more than $1,500, his black ass would be in prison," said Coleman, according to an audio recording cited in the court records.

Coleman later demanded that the purported drug traffickers place the payments in envelopes instead of handing him stacks of cash, arguing that this was a better way to avoid detection.

"No counting by the car," he told them. "[Some witness] might want to mail some shit to 60 Minutes. ... ‘I saw police taking some money by a car. Why would he be doing that?’"

Prosecutors allege Coleman received $46,000 in dirty payments and helped traffic a total of 28.2 kilograms of cocaine between November 1996 and March 1997.

On Nov. 21, 1997, Coleman was convicted by a jury of conspiring and attempting to aid and abet the distribution of cocaine, and with carrying a firearm during a drug trafficking offense. He was sentenced to life in prison, and two of his co-conspirators were sentenced to 17 years and 19 years, respectively.

Court records cited Coleman’s possession of a weapon, his abuse of power as a police officer, and his recruitment of other cops as justification for a longer sentence.

Coleman fought and appealed the conviction on numerous grounds over the years. He claimed in court filings that he was "incarcerated for an offense/act that the law does not make criminal," arguing that "conspiracy to attempt" is not a recognized crime. He said the FBI selectively targeted him because of his race while ignoring corruption among white police officers. He criticized his lawyer as providing ineffective counsel. And he argued that the federal government had no jurisdiction in the case "because he was not arrested in any fort, magazine, arsenal, needful building,' or other federal enclave," according to one motion to dismiss. None of the appeals were successful.

Outside, Warnock also intervened to help his brother. He wrote to then-president Obama, asking him to pardon Coleman. In that letter, which was included in the case file, Warnock noted that Coleman was a police officer, a detail he has not mentioned in public forums.

"As his brother and as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, I stand ready to directly provide and coordinate, through my network of contacts, the resources and support he will need to turn a second chance into real success," wrote Warnock in the letter to Obama, which was included in Coleman’s court filings. While that appeal was unsuccessful, Coleman was released in June 2020, after serving 22 years, due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.

The Warnock campaign did not respond to a request for comment.