Prosecutors seek rare federal death penalty in Ohio fire that killed woman, 8 kids
CLEVELAND – Medeia Carter, 33, rented her aging three-story house on East 87th Street with the help of a federal Section 8 rent subsidy.
Her son, Moses Williams Jr., celebrated his 14th birthday at the house on May 21, 2005 with a sleepover, inviting his cousins and a friend to join him and his siblings. The youngsters, ranging in age from 7 to 15, went to sleep, never to wake up.
As the eight children, Carter and two other adults slept, an intruder broke in and doused the first floor with gasoline, setting a ravaging fire that killed the mother and all the children. It was the deadliest fire in Cleveland history.
Now federal prosecutors are seeking a rare federal death penalty against the convicted drug dealer accused of setting the inferno. They contend that Carter's Section 8 subsidy effectively involved the house in interstate commerce, giving them federal jurisdiction that allows a death penalty for fatalities caused by the alleged arson of government property.
Defense attorneys for Antun Lewis, now 26, are fighting the prosecutors' strategy and Lewis has denied the charges, telling the Associated Press in a handwritten note from prison in 2008 that the victims were like family to him. He "would never do anything like that," he said.
No motive has been revealed for the blaze that gutted the 99-year-old frame house and devastated the impoverished, inner-city neighborhood. In the indictment, Lewis is accused of "substantial planning and premeditation" to kill the victims. His trial, twice delayed, is set for Sept. 1.
As many as 4,000 mourners attended the heart-wrenching mass funeral for the victims at the city's convention center. Police and city leaders were under intense pressure to solve the case but it would take three years for prosecutors to bring an indictment.
Since the 1960s, only three federal defendants have been put to death, one of them Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 2001. Others given federal death sentences are awaiting various appeals.
Besides Carter and Moses, the dead included three other children of Carter: Fakih Jones Jr., 7 , Malee'ya Williams, 12, and Devonte Carter, 15; three of Moses' cousins: Shauntavia Mitchell, 12; Earnest Tate Jr.,13, and Antwon Jackson Jr., 14; and a friend, Miles Anthony Cockfield, 13.
Two adults — Medeia Carter's friend, Capritta Bell, and Teon Smith — survived. Bell spent weeks in a hospital burn unit.
Authorities agreed on a federal prosecution because multiple agencies were involved in the investigation and because jurisdiction fell under federal law, said Ryan Miday, spokesman for Cuyahoga County prosecutor Bill Mason.
Defense attorneys and the prosecutor handling the trial, assistant U.S. Attorney David Sierleja, declined interview requests.
Kevin McNally, director of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, which assists in capital cases, said it was extremely rare for a death penalty case to be prosecuted under the interstate commerce law. Still, McNally doubted that would be an issue for jurors.
"They're looking at the kids that died," he said, "not whether there's a technical element of a federal offense."
The federal option puts more resources behind the high-profile case. That includes the FBI, which "would have a tendency to overwhelm any criminal defendant," said Richard Lillie, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who has practiced for 30 years.
A Cornell University law professor, John H. Blume, theorized that with Lewis and all the victims black, racial considerations may have been behind the choice of a federal trial. Blume said a federal jury drawn from whites and blacks in the city, suburbs and rural areas would be more likely to return a death penalty verdict. Blacks, who more often make up urban jury pools, are historically less likely to sign off on a death penalty, Blume said.
Cleveland is a majority black city; 2008 U.S. Census data shows the city with a 52 percent black, 42 percent white population.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave his required approval for prosecutors to seek the death penalty. The defense has asked the Justice Department to reverse the decision.
By the time Lewis was indicted, he was in state prison on unrelated drug-trafficking charges.
His mother, Brenda Lewis, contends he is innocent and was asleep at home, a half-mile away, when the fire started.
"This boy is being charged with a crime that he did not commit," she said, blaming the case against her son on authorities reacting to community pressure to solve the crime.
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. attorney general has authorized about 12 death penalty prosecutions annually, a tiny fraction in a system in which 75,000 criminal cases were filed in 2009. Most federal death penalty cases involve the killing of a federal agent, interstate kidnapping, international drug rings or terrorism.
A 2008 study covering 1989 to 2007 showed that just 61 of 233 defendants who went to trial in federal death penalty cases were sentenced to die.
The interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution is typically used to pursue crimes involving business operations spanning several states, like recent convictions in a Nebraska armored car holdup and a Virginia theft ring.
Associated Press writer Meghan Barr contributed to this report.