CLEVELAND -- A man twice convicted of killing a woman and eight children at a birthday sleepover in the city’s deadliest house fire was sentenced Friday to 35 years in federal prison.
Antun Lewis, 30, had asked the judge in U.S. District Court in Cleveland for mercy and expressed condolences to the families of the victims, some of whom he knew. He said someone committed the crime "but it’s a lie that person was me."
Lewis, a convicted drug dealer, was deemed ineligible for the death penalty because of a mental disability. His attorneys presented evidence he has an IQ of 70 or less. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he could have been sentenced to life for his arson conviction.
The fire killed 33-year-old Medeia Carter, four of her children and four other youngsters attending a birthday sleepover on May 21, 2005.
Carter’s mother, Evelyn Martin, also spoke at the hearing, recounting the horrific events of that late night and early morning. Six of the eight children who died were Martin’s grandchildren. She said she rushed to the house when she learned of the fire, pushed through a crowd and screamed one question over and over: "Where are my babies?"
"I had to stand there and watch them bring them out one by one," Martin said.
She recalled seeing some of her grandchildren zipped in body bags and the horrible sight of skin falling off one of her grandsons, who later died.
"I hope you live long enough so all the skin falls off your damned body," she said, glaring at Lewis, who did not look at her.
Authorities said Lewis, upset over a drug debt, doused the three-story building’s first floor with gasoline.
Judge Solomon Oliver said he had trouble believing Lewis set the fire over a drug debt and called the case the toughest he has heard in 20 years on the federal bench. He said he had to weigh various factors, including the public’s safety and Lewis’ disabilities, in deciding on an appropriate sentence.
"This will keep him off the streets for a very long time," he said.
Lewis has long maintained he was at home, several blocks away, when the fire started. His attorneys have said that there was no drug debt and that he passed two polygraph tests.
But after the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach called Lewis a "coward in the night."
"Nothing can ever erase the pain this defendant caused," he said.
Cleveland fire Battalion Chief Patrick Mangan stood in the middle of the courtroom and gave a victim’s statement, graphically describing what confronted him and his colleagues when they rushed into the home hoping to save lives. The images, he said, still haunt him.
"There’s no answer on this Earth for what happened that night," he said.
Rosalind Golden, whose 13-year-old grandson, Miles Cockfield, was killed in the fire, looked at Lewis and told him he had deprived the world of a wonderful person.
"I don’t mean to cry every day," she said, fighting back tears. "I pray to God just not to cry today."
The judge presided over Lewis’ first trial, in early 2011. While a jury convicted Lewis of a count of arson, the judge overturned the verdict because of concerns about the reliability of jailhouse informants who testified against him. The defense portrayed the jailhouse snitches as witnesses willing to say anything in return for lighter sentences.
The 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld the judge’s ruling in February 2012 and ordered that Lewis be given a new trial.
The appellate judges pointed out that one witness had a 30-year criminal record and 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 inaccurate, the judges said.
Prosecutors used some of the 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.