CLEVELAND (AP) – A man twice convicted in the arson deaths of a Cleveland woman and eight children at a birthday sleepover asked a judge on Thursday for a third trial over the deadliest house fire in the city’s history.
Lawyers for Antun Lewis, 30, an acquaintance of some of the victims, asked U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver to throw out the second conviction as unfair because of widespread media coverage of the crime over the years.
Lewis, a small-time drug dealer, was convicted for a second time in December and is scheduled to be sentenced March 18.
The defense said jurors were biased by publicity in the years since the 2005 fire.
“They found Antun Lewis guilty based on the heinnousness of the offense itself and pure speculative evidence,” the defense said.
“Given the pretrial publicity and heinousness of the crime, the jury could not presume Mr. Lewis innocent,” the defense continued.
A message seeking comment was left at the U.S. attorney’s office which handled the trials.
The fire killed 33-year-old Medeia Carter, four of her children and four other youngsters attending a birthday sleepover party on May 21, 2005.
The children were celebrating Moses Williams Jr.’s 14th birthday. More than 4,000 people attended their funerals at Cleveland’s convention center.
Authorities say Lewis, upset over a drug debt, doused the three-story building’s first floor with gasoline.
Lewis, a convicted drug dealer who knew some of the victims, denied wrongdoing and said he was home several blocks away when the fire started before dawn.
The first conviction was overturned by Oliver, who agreed with the defense that federal prosecutors had used unreliable jailhouse informants.
In the request for a third trial, the defense said prosecutors largely used the same unreliable testimony at the second trial.
“The government has failed to submit new evidence,” said the filing by the defense, which said it had undercut a weak prosecution case with testimony backing Lewis in the second trial.
If the government’s case was weakened at the second trial, “the risk of a miscarriage of justice is only greater” with the second conviction, the defense said.
Lewis was charged in federal court because the government subsidized the lease on the house where the fire occurred.
He was deemed ineligible for the death penalty because of a mental disability. Evidence presented by the defense showed that he has an IQ of about 70 or less, meaning he falls within the range of mild mental disability.
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