CLEVELAND (AP) — A man twice convicted of killing nine people in Cleveland’s deadliest arson fire could face life in prison when he is sentenced in federal court Friday.
Antun Lewis, 30, of Cleveland, was found guilty of a single count of arson in December. He could have faced the death penalty, but Judge Solomon Oliver ruled that Lewis is mentally disabled with an IQ of 70 or less.
The fire killed 33-year-old Medeia Carter, four of her children and four other youngsters who were attending a birthday sleepover party in May 2005. Authorities said Lewis was upset over a drug debt and doused the three-story building’s first floor with gasoline.
Lewis, who knew some of the victims, has steadfastly maintained his innocence. He has said he was at home, several blocks away, when the fire started. He and his attorneys have claimed there was no drug debt and that he has twice passed polygraph tests that show he’s telling the truth.
Attorneys on both sides have been engaged in a protracted legal battle leading up to Friday’s sentencing. Families of the victims have been upset about the delays.
U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver presided over Lewis’ first trial in early 2011. A jury convicted Lewis of a single count of arson, but Oliver overturned the verdict because of concerns about the reliability of jailhouse informants who testified against Lewis. The defense portrayed the jailhouse snitches who testified against their client as witnesses willing to say anything in return for lighter sentences.
The 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld Oliver’s ruling in February 2012 and ordered that Lewis be given a new trial.
The appellate judges noted that one witness had a 30-year criminal record with a sixth-grade education, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder and had spent half his life between state hospitals and prisons. That witness also gave numerous inconsistent and contradictory statements about the night of the fire to investigators and at trial, and phone records showed some of them were completely inaccurate, the judges said.
Prosecutors used some of the same witnesses during the second trial in December 2013 and a jury returned another guilty verdict. Lewis testified in his own defense at the second trial.