CLEVELAND – A former drug dealer was found guilty on Friday at his retrial in the 2005 arson deaths of a woman and eight children at a birthday sleepover — the city's deadliest house fire.
A U.S. District Court jury handed down the verdict in the case against 30-year-old Antun Lewis in the fire in an impoverished Cleveland neighborhood. Lewis also was convicted in the first trial.
Defense attorneys said Friday they believe the enormous tragedy overshadowed the evidence in the case.
"We truly believe that the charges in this case were so horrific, with the deaths of the children and the mother, that the community wanted to hold someone responsible, in spite of what the evidence showed," attorney Angelo Lonardo said, according to The Plain Dealer.
The prosecution didn't immediately respond to a message seeking comment after the verdict.
Judge Solomon Oliver, who presided at both trials, ordered the second trial, agreeing with the defense that the government had used unreliable jailhouse informants.
The defense said the informants' testimony was prompted by money paid by the government — one man got more than $20,000 over several years — or the prospect of leniency in their own criminal cases.
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.
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.