CINCINNATI - A former drug dealer convicted in the arson deaths of a woman and eight children at a birthday sleepover should get a new trial because of contradictory and "deeply troubling" testimony from jailhouse informants at his trial, a federal appeals panel ruled on Tuesday.
The decision from the 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upholds a federal judge's February 2012 order overturning the conviction of Antun Lewis, of Cleveland, and granting him a new trial.
In upholding federal Judge Solomon Oliver's order, the 6th Circuit noted that the judge's concerns over the trial testimony "call into question a large portion of the government's proof" and the likelihood that Lewis set the May 21, 2005, Cleveland fire that killed 33-year-old Medeia Carter, four of her children and four other children attending a 14th-birthday sleepover.
Prosecutors were reviewing their options in light of the order but hadn't decided what their next step would be, said Michael Tobin, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Cleveland. They could ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision, allow the case against Lewis to drop or refile charges for a second trial.
Lewis, 29, has always maintained his innocence. He remains in federal prison in southeastern Michigan.
His attorney Angelo Lonardo said the 6th Circuit's decision is "a very big deal" for him.
"Now you have four federal judges who have come to the same conclusion, and we hope the federal government will review its case," Lonardo said. "We hope that there'll be a new direction and a fresh investigation. We believe in our client, and there's never been any credible evidence to make us believe otherwise."
At trial, prosecutors said the fire was a crime "conceived in the bowels of hell," telling jurors that Lewis doused the home in gasoline and set it on fire. No motive was specified, but prosecutors suggested Lewis was upset about a drug debt and wanted to get even.
Lewis, who's mentally disabled, has said that he considered one of the 12-year-old victims to be like a sister and that he would never hurt a child.
The defense portrayed fellow inmates of Lewis who testified against him as determined to say whatever it took to gain lenient treatment from the government, including lighter sentences.
The 6th Circuit pointed out that one such 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 6th Circuit said.
Lewis' conviction was overturned as he was awaiting sentencing. He had faced a sentence of life in prison after he was deemed ineligible for the death penalty because of his mental disability.