CLEVELAND, Ohio —
The man found guilty of the deadliest house fire in Cleveland’s history has been granted a new trial based on a ruling issued Wednesday by a United States District Court Judge.
In February of last year Antun Lewis, 28, of Cleveland, was found guilty of one federal count of arson for setting a fire the morning of May 21, 2005, that killed nine people, eight of them children.
The children killed in the fire, Fakih Jones, 7; Shauntavia Mitchell, 12; Malee’ya Williams, 12; Miles Cockfield, 13; Earnest Tate Jr., 13, Antwon Jackson, 14; Moses Williams Jr., 14 and Devonte Carter, 15, were attending a sleepover for Moses’ birthday. 33-year-old Medeia Carter, the mother of four of the children, was also killed in the blaze.
More than 4,000 people attended a mass funeral for the children held at Cleveland’s convention center.
On Wednesday morning U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver, Jr. ruled in favor of a motion filed in June 2011 by Lewis’ attorneys that asked he be granted a new trial.
Judge Oliver, Jr., concluded in his ruling that Lewis was convicted, in part, on the testimony of key government witnesses that were, “marked by uncertainties and discrepancies.”
The judge’s ruling called into question the testimony of jailhouse informants, crack addicts, a prostitute and that of the alleged accomplice in the crime, career criminal Marion Jackson.
Jackson gave testimony during the trial claiming he was Lewis’ ‘lookout’ the night of the fire.
Judge Oliver Jr., ruled that much of Jackson’s testimony was completely uncorroborated.
“Jackson’s testimony was troubling,” ruled Oliver Jr. “The fact that Lewis was indicted approximately three years after Jackson came forward to law enforcement shows that perhaps even the Government was, at one point, skeptical of Jackson’s account. “
Lewis’ defense attorney, Angelo Lonardo, had staunchly argued against Jackson’s testimony during Lewis’ trial.
A jury ruled that Lewis splashed gasoline around a house on East 87th Street and set fire to the property in an effort to settle a drug debt. But according to today’s ruling, Judge Oliver Jr., says friends and relatives of the victims who testified under oath, said no one in the house was a drug user, had purchased drugs from Lewis, or was in a dispute with him.
Judge Oliver Jr., states in his ruling that, “the friend and relatives of the victims also testified to disconcerting tactics on the part of agents investigating the fire, including coercion and intimidation.”
Lewis was sentenced to the death penalty for his crimes. A jury reached a verdict in his case after two full days of deliberations.
In granting Lewis a new trial Judge Oliver Jr. ruled, “the court finds that this is one of those few cases where the integrity of the system is at stake and the court is requires to overturn the jury’s verdict as being against the manifest weight of evidence.”
Meanwhile, neighbors say the memorial outside the East 87th Street home is an eerie reminder of the horror that took place nearly seven years ago. “It was really sad,” said Adella Gary.
The conviction of Lewis did not come without controversy. From the beginning, family and friends insisted Lewis was innocent, claiming he was pinned as a scapegoat because of his prior criminal convictions.
“I hope they do catch the right guy. Somebody needs to pay for that,” said neighbor Demetrice Smith. “If it’s him, yeah, he need to do his time, but if it’s not him, he don’t need to be in there.”
No trial date has been set. FOX8 contacted attorneys from both sides but they declined to comment.