Defense Seeks Leniency in 9 Ohio Arson Deaths

June 2005: Pictures of the fire victims rest on stuffed animals in front of the burned-out house in Cleveland, in which nine people died.

June 2005: Pictures of the fire victims rest on stuffed animals in front of the burned-out house in Cleveland, in which nine people died.  (AP)

CLEVELAND -- The defense wants leniency for a man convicted in the arson deaths of eight children and a woman at a birthday sleepover, but prosecutors who lost a death penalty bid say the crime deserves life in prison.

Meanwhile, sentencing for Antun Lewis, 27, has been delayed until June 22 while U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver considers a request for a new trial.

The judge has ruled out the death penalty on mental disability grounds.

Prosecutors said Lewis deserves life in prison because of the horrific crime and because there's nothing redeeming about his background. Lewis' attorneys, however, told the judge in a sentencing memo that he deserves leniency because he's mentally disabled and once saved a 2-year-old's life in a car wreck.

Lewis, a former drug dealer, was convicted in February of setting the 2005 Cleveland fire that killed a woman, four of her children and four other youngsters. Prosecutors said Lewis broke in the home, doused the first floor with gasoline and set fire to it.

The defense has focused its request for a new trial on the credibility of a jailhouse snitch who placed Lewis at the scene. Prosecutors said the evidence, including Lewis' phone records, supported the conviction. Prosecutors said they didn't need to prove a motive but suggested Lewis was trying to settle a drug debt.

Lewis 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, a contention underscored in the defense sentencing memo.

"The evidence has shown that Mr. Lewis has a history of caring for children, especially the children in the neighborhood" of the fire, the defense said. "Mr. Lewis' history of caring for children can be seen throughout his life."

The defense sent the judge letters from a longtime Lewis friend and a motorist whose fiance was killed in a car accident six months before the fire. Both said Lewis pulled a child from under the victim's bloody body.

Saving the child's life warrants leniency for Lewis, his attorneys said.

The U.S. attorney's office countered that Lewis deserved life in prison. "It is difficult to imagine a more horrific offense nor a more horrific way to die," the prosecution's sentencing memo said.

The government detailed a litany of Lewis' crimes beginning with 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.

"There is really nothing redeeming about the defendant's history," the government said.