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Terrance Lewis

Other Philadelphia Conviction Integrity Unit Exonerations
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At 10:30 p.m. on August 6, 1996, 57-year-old Hulon Howard was fatally shot in his home in the 6100 block of Sansom Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His girlfriend, 36-year-old Lena Laws, said that three young men robbed her of $20 and shot Howard over an unpaid drug debt.

Laws initially told police that she and Howard were in the kitchen. One of the men fired a shotgun into the ceiling and then, after demanding money, the man shot Howard. She identified one of the three as a man she knew by his nickname “Mellow” and said he had dealt drugs out of the basement of the home in the past. She also said the man with the shotgun was nicknamed “Stink.”

The murder investigation stretched over nearly a year until, on July 16, 1997, detectives arrested 19-year-old Jehmar Gladden. The police arrested 22-year-old Jimel “Mellow” Lawson on August 14, 1997. During their investigation, police learned that someone called the Pennsylvania Crime Commission and reported that Terrance Lewis, who was 17, at the time of the murder, was nicknamed “Stink.” Police arrested Lewis, who had been known as “Stink” since he was in diapers, on December 20, 1997.

In May 1999, all three went to trial jointly before a jury in Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.

The prosecution’s case rested entirely on the testimony of Laws, whose account had changed from her initial statement. While another woman in the house at the time of the shooting had allegedly identified Lewis in a photo array, her identification was questionable and she was not called to testify.

Laws admitted that she was a crack cocaine addict and had smoked some crack within an hour prior to the shooting. She identified Lewis, Gladden, and Lawson. She said that Lewis was the man she initially said had fired the shotgun into the ceiling and then shot Howard. Now, she said that Lewis only racked a round into the chamber of the shotgun and that it was Lawson who killed Howard, but with a handgun.

While before trial Laws said the three had sold cocaine once from Howard’s home, now she testified that they had sold cocaine from Howard’s basement for 50 days in a row prior to the shooting.

No weapons were ever recovered and no forensic evidence linked the men to the crime. On May 24, 1999, Lawson and Gladden were convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery, and criminal conspiracy. Lewis was convicted of second-degree murder, armed robbery, and criminal conspiracy. All three were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Their convictions were upheld by the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined further appeal.

Beginning in 2002, Lewis, acting without a lawyer, launched what would become a nearly two-decade quest to prove his innocence that culminated on May 21, 2019, when his convictions were vacated and the charges were dismissed.

His first petition under the Pennsylvania post-conviction review act was filed in January 2002 and argued that his attorney had failed to provide an adequate legal defense by failing to call the police officer who had taken Laws’s initial statement that contradicted her trial testimony. The petition was dismissed in 2003 and an appeal of the dismissal was rejected in 2004 by the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The state Supreme Court refused further a further appeal in 2005.

Lewis then filed another state post-conviction petition in September 2005 claiming his trial defense attorney had failed to conduct a proper investigation of the case to look for alibi witnesses. That petition also was based upon a sworn affidavit from Gladden, who admitted he was present at the time of the crime and said Lewis was not there.

Just days after filing that state petition, Lewis also filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. That action was put on hold while the state petition was being pursued.

In March 2006, by happenstance, Lewis’s younger sister, who worked as a barmaid at the Jack of Hearts Lounge, struck up a conversation with Kizzi Baker, who came in to buy a drink. Baker mentioned that she lived on Samson Street. Baker disclosed that she was on the street on the night of the shooting and saw three men go into Howard’s home, heard a gunshot and saw them leave. Baker knew Lewis and said that Lewis was not one of the three men she saw.

Lewis’s lawyer filed an amended state petition for new trial based on Baker’s statement, but the petition was denied as untimely filed. That denial was upheld on appeal.

Attorney David Laigaie was then appointed to represent Lewis in the federal habeas corpus case. In that proceeding, Lawson provided an affidavit saying that he never knew Lewis and met him for the first time the day they showed up for trial.

On April 29, 2009, U.S. Magistrate Carol Sandra Moore Wells presided over a hearing on the federal habeas petition. Baker testified that Lewis was not among the three men she saw go in and out of Howard’s home. Lewis’s sister, Taneesha Thornton, testified about how Baker first told her what she saw when they were in the Jack of Hearts. Gladden testified that he told his trial defense lawyer that Lewis was not at the scene of the crime, but his lawyer told him not to say anything because it was an admission of being present at the time of the murder. Lewis testified and denied involvement in the crime.

In March 2010, Magistrate Wells concluded that although Lewis was very likely innocent, his petition had to be denied on procedural grounds. “Based upon credible testimony, the court believes that (Lewis) may not have been present at or participated in the tragic events of August 6, 1996; he may be actually innocent,” Wells said.

Magistrate Wells said it was “frustrating” to have to recommend to the U.S. District Judge assigned to the case that Lewis’s petition be denied.

In June 2010, U.S. District Judge Berle Schiller accepted the recommendation and denied the habeas petition. Laigaie—now acting as pro bono counsel—appealed to the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and to the U.S. Supreme Court, but both courts upheld the denial.

In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, holding that the mandatory imposition of a life sentence without parole for a juvenile convicted of murder was unconstitutional.

As a result, Laigaie filed another state petition on behalf of Lewis under the Post-Conviction Review Act. Lewis’s case was one of about 300 such cases in Pennsylvania in which juveniles had been sentenced to life without parole after a murder conviction. Lewis and his legal team, which added Kevin Harden Jr. in 2014, settled in to wait their turn.

By the fall of 2018, when Lewis’s case came up, his lawyers were informed that the court was not resentencing anyone who still had a freestanding claim of innocence—as Lewis did. So, he was faced with a difficult choice—forgo his innocence claim and proceed to sentencing or continue to fight his innocence and hope that if resentenced, he would be released.

At that time, the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office had offered Lewis a sentence of 20 years to life, which meant the possibility of parole and release. Lewis decided to abandon his innocence claim and proceed to a resentencing hearing.

On May 21, 2019, the day he was to be resentenced, Lewis and his legal team, accompanied by Lewis’s family, appeared before Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott. They hoped that she would sentence him in accord with the state’s offer. However, McDermott instead began questioning whether Lewis had been denied due process.

At Lewis’s attorneys’ urging, the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit already had conducted an in-depth re-investigation of the case. The review had turned up detective notes from an interview of Lena Laws in which she said that one of the three was known by the nickname “Stink,” but that she knew that man by the last name of Muhammad, not as Terrance Lewis. Those notes had not been disclosed to Lewis’s trial defense attorney. In addition, Laigaie and Harden filed amended state court petitions, naming two more witnesses who were on the street on the night of the murder and who could testify that Lewis was not among the three men who went in and out of Howard’s home.

Patricia Cummings, head of the Conviction Integrity Unit, explained to Judge McDermott that while the prosecution believed Lewis had received an unfair trial, the most expeditious legal route to exoneration appeared to be a return to federal court after Lewis was resentenced.

However, McDermott chose another route—she vacated Lewis’s conviction on the spot. And the prosecution then dismissed the case. Lewis was released the next day from the Chester State Correction Institution, having spent more than 21 years in custody.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 6/3/2019
State:Pennsylvania
County:Philadelphia
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1999
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:17
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No