The Derris Lewis Case: Inside the Jury Room

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

As most everyone now knows, all charges against Derris Lewis for the murder of his twin brother, Dennis, were dropped on Aug. 6, and he was freed after 18 months of incarceration. Things might have turned out very differently, if not for a strange twist of fate.

Derris already had endured one trial last spring that ended with a fluke mistrial. A second trial was scheduled to begin on Aug. 17, but prosecutors discovered that their key piece of evidence, Derris's bloody handprint, wasn't bloody after all.

The admission was shocking and appalling-particularly to me. I had been a member of that jury.

I realized that if we had continued to weigh and sift the evidence from the six days of testimony, we might well have perpetrated an enormous miscarriage of justice.

And I would have been a party to it.

In a jury room at Franklin County Common Pleas Court, 11 other jurorsand I began to decide a young man's future on March 18. There were two men and 10 women. Nine of us were white, the rest African-American. Most had college degrees in fields ranging from archaeology to engineering. A discovery by the archaeologist would help sway my opinion. We voted the engineer, a woman, our foreman.

After not being permitted to talk about the trial since we were seated March 9, we felt relief over the chance to finally discuss the case. We found it hard to wait our turn to let just one person speak. Then we agreed to take a preliminary vote. We went around the table, each of us giving our opinion. Two could not decide between guilty or not guilty, and the rest of us were evenly split.

Of course, at that point we were just starting to come to grips with the matter, and no one was absolutely entrenched in an opinion.

I was leaning toward guilty.

We had spent the past week and a halflistening to testimony about a gruesome act: the murder of Dennis Lewis, 17, on

Jan. 18, 2008, in the home he shared with his mother at 1161 Loretta Ave. in North Linden. The prosecution said Derris did it. The defense said he was asleep at

797 Wager St. on the south side at the time and that Dennis and his mother had been the victims of a home invasion carried out by persons unknown.

Both prosecutors were seasoned. Doug Stead had a mop of hair that hung over his forehead, giving him a deceptively boyish look. He was all business, however, walking around the courtroom hunched over, his eyes tracing the floor, his questions succinct and stern. Tim Mitchell, on the other hand, had a kindly demeanor and apologized for any problems his new hearing aids might cause. His questioning was more gentle and considerate.

The two lawyers for the defense were considerably younger. I wondered how much courtroom experience they had. Adam Nemann's perpetually knitted brow expressed an earnestness and perhaps a touch of insecurity. His associate, Shannon Leis, was a newly minted attorney.

Derris Lewis, neatly dressed and well groomed, was alert to every aspect of the courtroom and took copious notes on legal pads. His family, friends and supporters sat in rows behind him. When autopsy pictures of his brother were shown, he cried freely. Otherwise, he betrayed no emotion.

Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Guy Reece, whose bow tie collection may rival Gordon Gee's, was constantly attentive to us. One morning we found on the jury room table a huge mug full of Reese's Pieces, a gift from him. His unruffled manner and professional courtesy made us all feel more at ease.

One twin murdering another seemed unbelievable. Especially with Derris and Dennis. The defense presented a parade of character witnesses-teachers and the band director of East High School and the twins' supervisor at Giant Eagle-who all attested to their being model students. Dennis and Derris, they said, were devoted to each other, inseparable in and out of school, bolstering each other in a life full of difficulty and obstacles.

(Another defense witness inadvertently provided comic relief. Wearing a heavy gold chain and bright red silklike trousers and shirt, he claimed to have seen several intruders running from the Loretta house while across the street. When Stead asked him his occupation, he hesitated, then smiled, revealing rows of gold-capped teeth, and said, "No comment." With that, Reece called a recess. When we returned to the courtroom, the young man in red was again asked his occupation. He immediately replied, "Freeloader.")

For much of their investigation, the police said they didn't think Derris was a suspect. During the trial, the witnesses for the prosecution, all veteran police officers and criminal investigators, testified mainly about the havoc that had occurred in Dennis's room, the severe beating he sustained, the single gunshot that killed him and the bloody palm print on the wall. They spoke evenly and carefully as they responded to the questions of the prosecutors and the defense.

But they seemed unnerved by what they had to report. One detective's hands shook throughout his testimony.

When the fingerprint lab reported that the bloody palm print was Derris's, the investigators said they were taken aback. This was information they had not been prepared for and did not want to accept. But it seemed to be incontrovertible proof implicating Derris. If true, instead of being a bereaved brother, he was his brother's killer. Homicide detective Althea Young testified that she had become physically ill after she was told the print was Derris's.

When both sides concluded their cases, I found the evidence against Derris compelling. There was no sign of forced entry into the Loretta house. Derris had a key. And the bloody handprint on Dennis's bedroom wall indicated that Derris was there at the time of the murder.

Several other things made me lean toward a verdict of guilt. When detective Young had been on the stand, the prosecution played a tape of her questioning Derris about the money he and Dennis had after they finished working at Giant Eagle on Jan. 17, 2008. She was trying to connect the money they each had in the bank with the paychecks they had just gotten, and she couldn't make much sense out of the numbers. Derris was not helpful with his explanations. He was voluble, but not articulate. It was clear from the interview that Young was sympathetic to Derris-that, in fact, she was trying to help him figure out the money business. This, of course, was before she knew it was his palm print on the wall.

Derris did not help his case with that interview. Nor did his girlfriend, Kristian Holloway, when she testified for the defense that the two of them had found an envelope containing $283 in Dennis's dresser after the police had conducted a thorough search of the house over more than two days and had found no money. How could the police have missed all that cash? How could the robbers? I found the story not believable.

But I also had to acknowledge that the prosecution's case was, in other respects, meager. When Derris arrived at the murder scene in the early hours of Jan. 18, he bore no marks of having been in a life-and-death struggle. Because identical twins share the same DNA and blood type, it was not possible to determine that any of the blood at the murder scene was Derris's. In fact, the police had found no evidence linking him to the murder-except the bloody palm print.

The defense had conceded that the palm print was Derris's, but they disputed whether it was bloody. Derris's prints, they had said, were expected to be found in the house he had lived in and frequented daily. To substantiate their claim that the print wasn't bloody, the defense had prepared a transparency of the portion of the wall where the print was found. (The transparency was of an enlargement of the police color photo of the wall.) They had argued that the transparency showed the nearest blood splatters and smears were still some distance from the palm print. The police had cut out the square of drywall containing the palm print-the key exhibit for the prosecution. We had both the transparency and the drywall square in the jury room with us, and we each tried to ascertain how the two exhibits went together and what they told us.

The juror who had the degree in archaeology was used to examining minute pieces, and she pored over the transparency and the drywall, placing one over the other and trying to match them up while the rest of us discussed the case.

My own formulation was emerging. Perhaps Derris had enlisted several others to help him rob his brother. They had stormed the house and gone directly to Dennis's room. While two of them tried

to hold and subdue Dennis, maybe Derris ransacked his room looking for money. But Dennis put up quite a fight. At some point, I speculated, Derris was shoved and his bloodied hand hit the wall. Then the gun they had went off, perhaps accidentally, and the bullet killed Dennis.

I thought that several days later, Derris, full of guilt, perhaps planted a portion of the money he had stolen in his brother's dresser drawer.

At the afternoon's end on that first day, just as we were deciding to stop, the archaeologist juror looked up and said that no matter how she manipulated the transparency and the piece of wallboard, she could not make them match. She said that the transparency gave a distorted picture of the wall-that the blood smears in the transparency were actually closer than it showed. This finding caused us to be uneasy. This opinion nudged some of us a little more toward a guilty verdict.

Including me.

But we never got beyond that point.

The next morning, we learned that a juror's sister-in-law had died and she had told Reece that she couldn't continue with the deliberations. Because he already had released the two alternates, Reece was forced to declare a mistrial. When he came into the jury room to tell us, he clearly was upset. He apologized for the disruption the trial had caused to our lives, for requiring us to concentrate for days on testimony and evidence that now added up to no conclusion. Others on the jury may have been frustrated that they didn't have the opportunity to come to a verdict. But I have to say I was relieved.

Before he released us, Reece spent some time discussing the case and answering our questions. One was about the $283 Derris and his girlfriend say they had found in the house after the murder. "Use your common sense," he replied.

In his summary, prosecutor Stead had said to us in a steely voice, "People lie. Facts don't lie." He was, of course, treating the bloody handprint as a fact. Five months later, he had to admit that the handprint turned out not to be bloody. Astonishingly, no one ever had examined the handprint for blood before then. The blood people had done their work and the fingerprint people had done their work, both independently, never connecting their efforts.

When I realize what might have happened last March, I am brought up short. Throughout the trial, that assumption about the bloody handprint was claimed as fact by the prosecutors. And that purported fact might have prevailed in the jury room.

If not for the death of that juror's sister-in-law, we might have reached a completely unjust verdict-and ruined a young man's life.

Dennis Read is a freelance writer who contributes frequently to Columbus Monthly.