Derris Lewis isn't your typical Columbus hero. He doesn't throw touchdowns on Saturday afternoons, donate millions to charity or captain a Fortune 500 company. In fact, what makes Lewis stand out is hardly a point of pride unless you're an outlaw country singer or a gangsta rapper. For 18 months, Lewis was in jail, accused of murder. Not exactly the resume of champions.
But everyone loves a good redemption story, and Lewis's incredible legal journey-a saga with enough twists and turns to fill a John Grisham thriller-riveted Columbus in 2009. If not the biggest local news story of the year, the Lewis case certainly was the most dramatic. It included surprising courtroom revelations, intense media scrutiny, a fluke mistrial and a brave resolution that's still resonating in Central Ohio today. A victim of a profoundly botched Columbus police investigation, Lewis walked out of the Franklin County jail in August to the welcoming arms of family members who steadfastly refused to believe the college-bound honor student could have killed his identical twin brother, Dennis.
On that day, relatives wore T-shirts adorned with his brother's favorite saying: "It is what it is."That catchphrase took on special meaning to the Lewis family and their supporters as they rallied around Derris during his ordeal. "[Dennis] said that all the time,"Derris recalls during an interview at his lawyer's office. "It happened for a reason. It is what it is. It has to be that way."
Like his brother, Derris trusted God's plan, even as he found himself charged with an unspeakable crime, locked up with rapists and killers, grieving for Dennis alone, unable (at first) to explain what seemed like irrefutable physical evidence linking him to the brutal murder. Through it all, Derris never lost hope, never wavered in his claims of innocence. An 18-year-old who'd never been in trouble before, Lewis stood strong during a tense 90-minute police interrogation and refused to even consider a plea bargain. "He believed he was going to be acquitted,"says his attorney, Adam Nemann. "That was what justice required."
The Lewis brothers were unlikely candidates to star in a modern-day Cain and Abel story. They excelled at East High School, avoided the temptations of their rough North Linden neighborhood and were poised to go to college, a gateway to a better life. "That was our main goal," Derris says. "Even though we lived in a neighborhood that was full of drug dealers, we still managed to overcome obstacles."
Moreover, they were best friends. They did everything together, from after-school jobs at Giant Eagle in Clintonville to extracurricular school activities such as the robotics team, marching band, theater and music. They both starred in the East High School production of The Wiz (Dennis was the scarecrow, Derris the Wiz) and harmonized together during school talent shows in ninth and 10th grades.
Dennis's murder captured public attention even before Derris's arrest. In January 2008, Dennis died from a single gunshot wound through the heart. Not only was he a promising 17-year-old killed tragically, but he also was courageous to the very end, defending his mother, April Lewis, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, from masked robbers who invaded their home in the middle of the night.
"When my son turns 17, I hope he's just like Dennis Lewis,"wrote then Dispatch columnist Ann Fisher shortly after the killing. Then the case turned in a stunning direction. Columbus police linked a "bloody palm print" found at the crime scene to Derris. Columbus homicide detective Althea Young, the lead investigator in the case, later testified in court that she became physically ill when she found out about the match. Police theorized Derris left the mark on the wall as he fought with his brother that night. The evidence, police concluded, could mean just one thing: Derris killed his brother. "Derris is in denial," Columbus police homicide Sgt. Dana Norman told the Dispatch in January 2009. "We're not wrong."
Lewis's faith was tested during his 18 months in the Franklin County jail downtown. The days were slow and agonizing. He kept time by watching the new Franklin County courthouse rise nearby: a giant hole, an elevator shaft, a steel skeleton, windows. He tried to stay positive-especially when his mother visited-and sought inspiration in books: the Bible, Grisham's The Innocent Man, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.
Still, hardships abounded. He battled depression, caught a skin infection, missed his high school graduation and senior prom, couldn't hug his mother for a year and a half (a Plexiglas divider separated them during visits) and broke down frequently in weekly meetings with Shannon Leis, Nemann's co-counsel in the case. Leis says Lewis endured "mental torture" as he struggled to make sense of the palm print that put him behind bars. "There's no question about it; he's a strong man," Leis says. "But he really went through some horrible, horrible times."
Eventually, the case came down to an all-in moment. In August, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien offered Lewis an extraordinary opportunity. After questions surfaced about the print during and after Lewis's aborted March trial, O'Brien wanted to put the key piece of evidence on trial, so to speak. If a test showed no blood in the print, O'Brien would drop all charges. If it went the other way, Lewis, most likely, would be looking at life in prison. It was a gut-wrenching call, but Lewis had no doubts. "Let's go,"he told Nemann with no hesitation when his attorney described the offer.
Two days later, an elated Leis greeted Lewis in the jail with the results. "You're going home!" she exclaimed, unable to stand still.
Lewis barely cracked a smile. "I know,"he said.
His bags already were packed.
In the era of "CSI," the public tends to overestimate forensic science. Despite huge technological advances, fallible human beings still must gather evidence, analyze data, coordinate with others and protect the purity of crime scenes, the fragile centerpieces of murder investigations. Terry Sherman, a former Franklin County assistant prosecutor and a longtime Columbus defense attorney, was involved in a murder case in which investigators were stumped by a trail of bloody footprints. Finally, they identified the culprit: an assistant coroner with blood on his shoes. "There's a thousand ways a crime scene can be tarnished," Sherman says.
A simple miscommunication apparently sent the Lewis investigation astray. Young thought she saw a palm print in a blood smear on a wall. She asked a crime scene investigator, Mark Bryant, to check for prints. Using a chemical stain called Amido black, which can detect latent prints in blood or other protein-based substances (hamburger grease, hair gel), he found a palm print belonging to Derris Lewis above the bloodstain. When Bryant told Young about the discovery–a print that probably was in the room for some time–Young assumed it came from the smear. "The leap was made from the fact that it was his print to the fact it was in blood, without anybody checking," Nemann says. "It was extremely reckless."
In fact, Young was right. There was a print in blood-but it wasn't Derris's. After Nemann poked holes in the case during the March trial, O'Brien hired Ron Huston, the head of fingerprint analysis at the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab in the Dayton area, to take a closer look at the case. Huston identified a print that Columbus examiners missed the first time: the right ring fingerprint of Dennis Lewis in the blood smear on the wall. (Huston also confirmed that Derris's palm print was above the smear.) If Columbus police had found Dennis's print right away, they might have avoided the fateful miscommunication that put Derris Lewis on trial. "The people who did the crime scene screwed it up," says David Grieve, an Illinois fingerprint expert who worked with the Lewis defense team.
The so-called bloody print appeared to blind detectives. Plenty of red flags could have stopped police in their tracks. Dennis Lewis fought his attackers fiercely, but his brother didn't have a scratch on him. Three people provided an alibi for Derris (though there were inconsistencies in their statements) and the motive for the crime seemed to test the boundaries of common sense. If he really wanted to steal a few hundred dollars from his brother's room, Derris didn't need a gun. He could have walked in any time and swiped the cash.
"The case is kind of a classic example of tunnel vision, where once they get a suspect, they won't look anywhere else," says Martin Yant, a Columbus private investigator and the author of several books about wrongful convictions and police and prosecutorial misconduct. (The Columbus police declined to be interviewed for this article. In a Sept. 9 press release, the division described the mistake as "not malicious or purposeful.")
These days, American jurisprudence gets a bad rap-and perhaps deservedly so. Every week, it seems, some group of college kids or a religious organization or a newspaper investigation is winning the freedom of a wrongly convicted inmate after a protracted battle with hardheaded prosecutors. And, to be cynical, Lewis, a poor kid with a young, court-appointed attorney, seemed like a good candidate to join the ranks of the railroaded. But that didn't happen. Perhaps naively, Lewis believed he'd get a fair shake in court. And he did. His bargain-basement legal team gave him a vigorous defense, and prosecutors lived up to their sworn duty to seek truth and justice, not merely rack up convictions. "We should be celebrating the fact that the system worked," Nemann says.
In the fall of 2008, Lewis's family approached Nemann. Lewis says at the time his then court-appointed public defender hinted he should consider accepting a plea bargain, which could have put him in prison for at least 28 years. The idea offended Lewis. "We go to trial," he recalls thinking. "I know that I'm innocent, and we have to prove this."
Earlier in 2008, Nemann and another attorney, Jami Oliver, won a pro-bono wrongful death case in U.S. District Court in Columbus. The Lewis family heard about the victory and hoped Nemann would represent Derris without compensation, too. Nemann said he couldn't afford to do it. "I lost so much money the first time I did that,"he says. But he would accept the job if he were court-appointed. So, Lewis requested a new attorney and asked Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Guy Reece to hire Nemann. Though he was not obligated to do so, Reece honored Lewis's somewhat unusual request.
In his closing argument during the trial, Nemann offered a PowerPoint presentation based on photographs of the crime scene. The presentation, he contended, showed Derris's palm print above the blood smear on the wall. Nemann also scored points when two Columbus print examiners offered conflicting testimony on the location of Lewis's palm print. "I have had other attorneys come to me and say, 'It really has changed my career knowing about your case,' "Nemann says. " 'Every day, we have these guys who are obviously guilty, and every once in a while, you are going to have one, just maybe, just maybe, who is innocent.' "
The jury never got a chance to come to a verdict. A family emergency forced a juror to drop out just as deliberations began, and with no alternates available (Reece presumptively dismissed them), a mistrial was declared. A juror, writing in the October issue of Columbus Monthly, said the panel's first informal vote was evenly split on Lewis's guilt.
Still, Nemann had done enough damage to the prosecution's case that, after the trial, O'Brien decided to take a closer look at the evidence, eventually suggesting the do-or-die test that freed Lewis. Such an open-minded stance is typical of O'Brien, but rare among other Ohio prosecutors, says Mark Godsey, the head of the University of Cincinnati Law School's Ohio Innocence Project. "He acts like somebody who's interested in justice, not just winning cases," Godsey says.
O'Brien, unlike many other prosecutors in Ohio, has embraced DNA exonerations of inmates. When a 2008 test vindicated Robert McClendon, convicted of rape and kidnapping in 1991, O'Brien didn't fight the results. He worked with the Ohio Innocence Project to get McClendon out of prison immediately and launched a search for evidence in other cases. So far, one prisoner, Joseph Fears, has been exonerated as a result, while a second, Charles Dumas, had his guilt confirmed. "I don't want anybody in jail that doesn't belong there any more than they want to be there," O'Brien says.
Nemann and the Columbus city attorney's office are discussing a financial settlement to compensate Lewis for his ordeal. In a possibly unprecedented move, Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman publicly ordered the city attorney's office to engage in settlement talks with Lewis and his family without a lawsuit being filed. "My heart goes out to Derris Lewis and the entire Lewis family for the anguish and trauma they have experienced over the past 18 months," Coleman said in a Sept. 9 press release. (Glenn Redick, the head of the city attorney's litigation section, declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing settlement discussions.)
After an internal review of the Lewis case, Columbus police now require homicide detectives and crime scene investigators to walk through murder scenes together and follow up at "after-action" meetings. But private investigator Bob Britt, a retired Columbus police lieutenant, says the practices are nothing new. "Probably 99 percent of the detectives down there are doing that," says Britt, one of three PIs who worked with the Lewis defense team. Columbus Councilwoman Charleta Tavares says she plans to probe the matter more once a settlement is reached. "Whether this was the first case or whether anything like this has ever happened in the past, I don't know that," she says. "But what I do know, there is something that we need to correct."
Since he was freed in August, Lewis has kept a low profile. He regained a partial scholarship to Ohio State, where he spent the fall taking classes in business, math, African-American studies and theater. (For a theater assignment, he had to work on an adaptation of Sam Shepard's True West, about two feuding brothers. In his version, he switched the genders of the lead characters.) He lives on campus, but still visits his mother several times a week.
With his life returning to normal, Lewis thinks about his brother more. "It's starting to hit me like, 'He's not here,' " Lewis says. "We would go everywhere together. There was nowhere you would see one without the other."He wants to succeed at Ohio State to honor his brother. "That's what we promised each other: To go to college and become the best men we can be," he says.
But his past is hard to escape. He says he bears a stigma that will remain until police arrest someone else in Dennis's murder. "I was in Wal-Mart," he says. "This elderly woman says, "I know who you are, and I think you still did it.' "
True to his brother's memory, Lewis brushed off the comment and moved on. He does a lot of that these days. To help pay for books and other expenses, he works part-time as a clerk and runner for Columbus attorney Toki Clark. As part of his job, he spends a lot of time in the courthouse rubbing shoulders with some of the same people who almost put him in prison for the rest of his life. "This is my job," he says. "This is what I got to do."
It is what it is.
Dave Ghose is an associate editor for Columbus Monthly.