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Ryan Lewis

Other New Orleans Exonerations
On May 16, 2002, Derrick Thornton and Derrick Whatley, both students at Clark High School in New Orleans, cut school in the middle of the day. They caught the Broad Street bus not far from the Superdome and got off a few blocks from Thornton’s home in the Gentilly neighborhood north of downtown. Near the bus stop, they ran into two other young men, both wearing the Clark High uniform of gray pants and a white shirt. Thornton and Whatley would later say they recognized one of the teenagers from school as Ronaldo Smith but didn’t know his companion. The four teenagers walked over to Thornton’s house, and while they were on the porch, a fifth young man joined them. He was also wearing the Clark uniform.

At some point during their conversation on the porch, the fourth teenager pulled out a gun, pointed it at Whatley and told him not to move. Thornton tried to leap to safety, but the teenager with the gun fired a shot that hit him in the neck. The shooter ran, along with Smith and the fifth teenager.

Whatley and Thornton called 911. The police and EMS arrived at approximately 12:45 p.m. and took Thornton to the hospital. A detective took Whatley back to Clark High to look at student photos. Whatley identified 15-year-old Ryan Lewis as the shooter and Jarren Green as the fifth person in the group. Lewis was arrested later that day. He would later be indicted on attempted first-degree murder.

Thornton was released from the hospital on May 17, and that day he also identified Lewis as the shooter. However, he said the fifth teenager was not Green but Vashawn Tate. (Tate’s charges were later dismissed, and Smith pled guilty to several reduced charges.)

As part of the investigation, police took into evidence a glass that one of the witnesses said the shooter had drunk from. The prints weren’t usable. A DNA sample was collected from Lewis to compare with DNA taken from the glass, but no testing was done at that time.

After Lewis’s arrest but prior to his indictment, a private investigator working for his attorney visited the home of Barbara Mackie, a gym teacher at Clark High. She said that Lewis had been in her third-period class on the day of the shooting. The class ran from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. Mackie showed the investigator a class-attendance form, known as a Form 44, she had filled out, indicating that Lewis was present.

More than a year later, Lewis’s attorney subpoenaed the school’s records custodian for the Form 44. But the record couldn’t be found. At the time of the shooting, Clark High was operating from a temporary facility, but it had returned to its permanent location. (It has since closed.)

Prior to trial, Lewis’s attorney, Robert Glass, tried to suppress the identifications made by Whatley and Thornton. Whatley had identified Lewis by looking through student pictures on the school computer and had stopped when he got to Lewis. He never looked through the remainder of the students, in part because the school was closing for the day. Thornton had made his identification a day later, and he had spoken with Whatley before choosing Lewis. The motion to suppress was denied.

At the trial in Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, Thornton and Whatley each testified that Lewis was the shooter. Clark High had between 1,300 and 1,400 students, and neither Thornton nor Whatley knew Lewis, although Thornton said they had been in the same band class the first half of the year.

Mackie testified that Lewis was in her class that day, but there was no documentation to support her assertion. Moreover, the school’s record-keeping in general was called into question because a computer printout from the same time period showed Lewis at school on the day after the shooting, when he was in jail. Another computer record showed Thornton and Whatley in school during the time of the shooting. A prosecutor hammered home in closing arguments that the school records were unreliable and that jurors should rely on the testimony of Whatley and Thornton, both of whom testified that Lewis was the shooter.

A jury convicted Lewis on October 13, 2004, but he was never sentenced. Glass had filed a motion for a new trial based on testimony by the state’s last witness, who said that a former secretary might know the location of the lost Form 44.

In preparing for the motion, Robert Glass issued a subpoena to search a storage area at Clark High’s old location. School officials conducted the search and said there were only three years of records there. Defense investigators did their own search and found five years of records, but not the year in question. They then issued a new subpoena to search Clark High’s current location for the attendance records for the 2002-2003 school year. The principal did a cursory search and said she couldn’t find them, but she agreed to let a defense investigator do a more thorough search. He spent three days in the archives and found the document from Mackie’s gym class. It had Lewis marked as present. Mackie had testified at trial that Lewis was a good student, “very quiet and respectful” and a “breath of fresh air.”

At a hearing on the motion, the records custodian also acknowledged problems with the computer records that had undercut Lewis’s defense.

On February 3, 2005, Lewis was granted a new trial, but the state appealed the ruling. It argued that the records were not newly discovered evidence because Lewis’s attorney knew about them before trial and that he should have had his investigator seize them from the gym teacher rather than issuing a subpoena at a later date. The state also said that granting Lewis a new trial would not be in the interest of judicial efficiency because it would result in a retrial.

The Fourth Circuit Louisiana Court of Appeal upheld the order for a new trial on May 24, 2006. It said the trial judge was in the best position to evaluate the harm Lewis suffered by the unavailability of the attendance records, and “in light of the serious crime at issue, the judicial efficiency argument is particularly egregious.”

Lewis opted for a bench trial at his retrial. Prior to the start, the prosecution and defense stipulated to a finding that Lewis’s DNA was excluded from the sample taken from the glass. The retrial lasted two days, and he was acquitted on December 20, 2007.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/6/2020
Most Serious Crime:Attempted Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:2002
Sentence:Not sentenced
Age at the date of reported crime:15
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*