CLEVELAND (AP) — A mentally disabled former drug dealer convicted in the fire deaths of nine people, including eight children at a birthday sleepover, on Wednesday won a new trial from a judge who said jailhouse snitches and other witnesses were unreliable.
U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver overturned the arson conviction of 28-year-old Antun Lewis and said the bulk of the evidence against him came from "suspect witnesses, career criminals and jailhouse informants."
"In so ruling, it is important to note that the court does not find that Lewis did not commit the arson or that there was no evidence at all which would support a conviction,'" the judge said in a 95-page ruling.
"However, this is also a case that was marked by many unresolved questions. A new trial would provide an incentive for both sides to better develop the facts in this case."
Prosecutors will appeal, spokesman Mike Tobin with the U.S. attorney's office said.
Timothy Ivey, part of Lewis' four-member defense team, said he called Lewis, who's still locked up, to inform him of the ruling.
"His response is one of elation but one of vindication. I mean, he's maintained from the beginning his innocence in this case," Ivey said.
Oliver had postponed Lewis' sentencing pending a decision on his motion for a new trial. The judge earlier had ruled out the death penalty because of Lewis' low IQ.
Lewis had been charged with one federal count of arson because the house was rented with a federal subsidy.
He told The Associated Press in an exchange of letters from prison in 2008 that he knew the victims and would never do anything to harm a child.
The 2005 fire killed 33-year-old Medeia Carter, four of her children and four other youngsters attending a sleepover marking Moses Williams Jr.'s 14th birthday. More than 4,000 people attended their funeral at a convention center.
No motive was specified, but the prosecution suggested that Lewis was upset about a drug debt and wanted to get even.
The defense repeatedly highlighted the absence of a motive, but the prosecution said it wasn't required to identify one.
Defense attorney Angelo Lonardo said that Lewis has always maintained his innocence and that the defense is ready to retry the case.
"We're just ecstatic," added Lonardo, who said jailhouse snitches looking for leniency had framed Lewis.
"It's always been our hope that the true people responsible for this will be charged as a result of our efforts. We continue to feel for the victims as we always have," he said.
The prosecution built its case around Marion Jackson, a felon who recorded a jail conversation with Lewis and said he had served as a lookout when the fire was set.
Jackson said Lewis offered him $1,500 to set a fire two days before it occurred. Two days later, Jackson testified, Lewis pointed out the house he wanted set on fire: Carter's house.
He saw Lewis buy $5 worth of gasoline and disappear between two homes on the street, he said. Then he saw Lewis standing, watching the house burn, he said.
The defense denounced Jackson as unreliable and a jailhouse snitch. Jackson served six prison terms, totaling 15 years, over a 31-year period.
"The case itself absolutely defines what reasonable doubt is, and if there is reasonable doubt in the law, this case represents it," said Wesley Dumas, part of the defense team.
Lewis had an aggravated arson conviction at the age of 12 and assaults on a school principal and probation officer before he was 15.
As an adult, Lewis has convictions for car theft, disorderly conduct, repeat drug and resisting arrest counts, drunken driving, fleeing and, while locked up, assaults on two fellow inmates.