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Carlton Lewis

Other New York Exonerations with False or Misleading Forensic Evidence
On the morning of February 7, 1990, a maintenance worker found the body of 23-year-old Cheryl Coleman in an empty apartment on the south side of Syracuse, New York. Coleman’s shirt was pulled up and her pants were pulled down. She had extensive bruising on her head, face, and neck. There was blood throughout the apartment. Investigators with the Syracuse Police Department found a bloody two-by-four near Coleman’s body. A medical examiner said in their report that Coleman died of blunt force trauma to the head.

As part of the investigation, the police collected hairs from the apartment and from Coleman’s body and clothing. In addition, the medical examiner collected a rape kit from Coleman’s body. Police also found a red knit cap at the crime scene.

Coleman was a sex worker and drug user, and police developed a list of 10 potential suspects, men who hung out at the bars near the apartment on South Salina Street or sold drugs in the neighborhood. One of the men on the list was 23-year-old Carlton Lewis, whom police interviewed on February 10.

Lewis and his wife, Brenda, went to the police station, and Lewis told detectives that he and his wife had stayed in on February 6 because she had just been released from jail. Lewis said he wasn’t near the apartment that night and hadn’t been in that neighborhood since February 3. Jail records corroborated the date of his wife’s release.

During the investigation, police kept hearing the name of Willie McKee, who was 16 years old and had a previous conviction for an attempted armed robbery.

Police questioned McKee on February 19, and he signed an affidavit that said he watched Coleman and Lewis go behind a gray house with a man named Greg Brown. About 15 or 20 minutes later, according to the statement, Lewis came out from behind the house and asked McKee to come with him. McKee said another man asked Lewis what he had done, and Lewis responded, “It’s my business.” McKee said he didn’t find out about Coleman’s death until the next day.

Police returned to Lewis’s house at 12:15 a.m. on February 20, and he again agreed to an interview at the police station, where he was interrogated from 12:34 a.m. to just before 6 a.m. The police read Lewis his Miranda rights, but there were no notes or recording of the interview.

After the interrogation, the police typed a three-page statement that Lewis signed. According to the statement, Lewis said he was standing on the corner of Lafayette and South Salina streets when a Black woman approached and wanted to buy drugs. Lewis told her, “It’s hot over here, I’ll get you something.” Brown then ran up and said, “I got it. I got it right here.”

According to the statement, Brown suggested they go to the empty apartment because the police were around. Inside the apartment, Brown offered Coleman drugs in exchange for sex. After they were done having sex, Coleman got dressed and asked for her drugs. Brown gave her something, which Coleman tasted and then said, “This ain’t real.”

In the statement, Lewis said Brown and Coleman began fighting, and Brown picked up a board and hit her in the face while they stood in the hallway. Lewis said he left the apartment, ran into McKee and some other young men, and told McKee that “Greg had done something he had no business doing.”

After they saw Brown apparently leave the house, Lewis and McKee went back inside. Lewis told McKee that Coleman was hurt badly and that Brown had hit her. In the statement, Lewis said he waited outside while McKee went inside. When McKee returned, he told Lewis that Coleman was dead.

Separately, Brenda Lewis gave a statement to investigators and repeated what she had told them earlier, that Lewis was with her the night of February 6.

Lewis agreed to give investigators blood, hair, and fingernail samples, and he was allowed to leave.

Police then re-interviewed McKee, who gave a second statement. Now, he said that he had gone to the apartment with Lewis and Brown in order to trade drugs for sex with Coleman. He said he watched Coleman have oral sex with Brown and vaginal sex with Lewis. He said he had sex with Coleman afterwards, but he stopped and pulled out when the condom broke.

McKee said Coleman became angry at Brown when she sampled the drugs he gave her in exchange for sex. Brown hit her in the face and head repeatedly with the piece of wood, then handed the two-by-four to Lewis, who hit her “one or two times.” Lewis then gave the weapon to McKee, who stepped on her stomach and hit her with the two-by-four.

Brown dragged Coleman’s body into the hallway. McKee said he wiped Coleman’s blood off his hands on the hallway wall. McKee, Brown, and Lewis were all arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

Forensic technicians were able to pull several fingerprints from the crime scene, including a partial print from the two-by-four but were unable to make a “positive comparison” to either Brown’s or Lewis’s fingerprints.

Separately, a forensic scientist said that hairs collected from a toilet seat, rug, and Coleman’s body were “consistent” with Lewis’s hair. Vaginal swabs from the rape kit tested positive for semen. The oral and anal swabs tested negative for semen.

On July 26, 1990, McKee pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter in Coleman’s death and agreed to testify against Brown and Lewis. His sentencing was delayed.

Brown and Lewis were tried together in Onondaga County Supreme Court in November 1990. A witness had told police that she saw Brown wearing a red hat like the one found in the apartment, but at trial she was unable to make a courtroom identification of Brown.

McKee was the state’s key witness, and he testified that he, Brown, and Lewis beat Coleman to death after she became upset because she believed that Brown had given her fake cocaine. He said that Brown hit Coleman the most, but that he and Lewis also hit her.

McKee said that the men left the apartment and then went to a nearby house to smoke cocaine. A person who lived in that house testified that Lewis showed up at the house around 8 p.m. on February 6 and that McKee and another man showed up at 1 a.m. on February 7.

Two witnesses testified that they saw Brown, Lewis, and McKee together on February 6 near the apartment where Coleman’s body was found. One of those witnesses also testified that he saw Lewis and McKee go with Coleman to the rear of the apartment.

Timothy French, a forensic chemist with the Syracuse Police Department, testified that Lewis’s head hair was consistent with hair found on a toilet seat, a piece of Plexiglas, and a rug at the apartment where Coleman was killed. He also testified that pubic hairs consistent with Lewis were found on Coleman’s body and pants.

Lewis had tried unsuccessfully to sever his trial from Brown’s and also to suppress his statement to police, but Justice Patrick Cunningham ruled against both motions. That created a new problem because Lewis’s statement also mentioned Brown. In an attempt to protect Brown’s right to confront his accusers, Justice Cunningham redacted those sections.

Toward the trial’s close, an inmate housed with McKee at the Onondaga County Jail testified that McKee had said that one of the men charged in Coleman’s death was innocent. “He said one of the guys they were holding didn’t have nothing to do with the crime,” Randolph Mattice testified as a witness for Brown. Mattice testified that McKee never identified whether he was referring to Lewis or Brown.

Lewis did not testify. Prior to trial, prosecutors had offered him a deal similar to McKee’s. Lewis rejected the offer.

While the jury deliberated, a judge sentenced McKee to six to 18 years in prison. The jury convicted Brown and Lewis of second-degree murder on November 16, 1990. Brown received a sentence of 25 years to life. Lewis received a sentence of 20 years to life.

Lewis appealed, and the Fourth Department of the Appellate Division of New York’s Supreme Court granted him a new trial on April 24, 1992.

The court said that Justice Cunningham erred in not granting Lewis’s motion for severance, because it led to a wholesale editing of his statement to police.

“That redaction transformed defendant’s statement from one which was substantially exculpatory to one which was highly inculpatory,” the court said. “The redacted statement that was admitted at trial indicates that only defendant was present with Coleman prior to her bludgeoning and that, after defendant had provided Coleman with fake drugs, he took McKee to the premises and told McKee that Coleman was probably dead inside the apartment. The prejudice suffered by defendant as a result of the redaction was exacerbated by testimony from an investigator that defendant admitted being in the apartment at the time Coleman was killed.”

Lewis’s retrial in Onondaga County Supreme Court took place in October 1992. This time, his full statement was admitted into evidence. McKee again testified, as did French, the forensic technician, who again said the hairs collected at the crime scene were “consistent” with samples provided by Lewis.

Lewis did not testify, and his attorney presented no other witnesses. Instead, he focused on the inconsistencies between the statement attributed to Lewis and the statements given by McKee. For example, the Lewis statement said that only Brown had sex with Coleman, and McKee wasn’t present during the murder. McKee’s statement said he had sex with Coleman and that all three men hit her with the two-by-four. The attorney also noted the absence of blood on Lewis’s clothing and the lack of fingerprint evidence connecting him to the crime scene.

During closing, the prosecution said the “hair samples are a direct correlation linking [Lewis] to Coleman and her death.”

The jury convicted Lewis of second-degree murder on October 19, 1992, and he was again sentenced to 20 years to life in prison.

Lewis again appealed his conviction, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to corroborate McKee’s testimony. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction on May 27, 1994. It said that McKee’s testimony was amply corroborated, noting the testimony that placed Lewis near the apartment prior to Coleman’s death and the testimony of forensic technician who said Lewis’s hair was consistent with hair found at the crime scene and on Coleman.

Lewis asked the Innocence Project for assistance in 2001, and the organization began filing motions to conduct DNA testing on the evidence in the case. In 2012, with the cooperation of the Onondaga County District Attorney’s Office, the Onondaga County crime laboratory conducted DNA testing on evidence from the vaginal swab collected in the rape kit. The sample excluded Lewis as a contributor. It was then uploaded to the state’s DNA convicted offender database. Forensic analysts reported that McKee was the source.

The lab also performed Y-STR testing on a scraping from Coleman’s fingernail. This testing, which detects male DNA, excluded Lewis as a source of the scraping. Y-STR results could not be uploaded to the state’s offender database.

In 2013, Lewis was excluded as a contributor to sperm samples from stains on Coleman’s pants. In 2021, he was excluded as a contributor to the blood samples found on the two-by-four. He was released from prison in November 2021.

In 2022, a company called Mitotyping Technologies conducted mitochondrial DNA testing on the hair samples collected at the crime scene. The testing excluded Lewis as a contributor to all the samples. Neither the state nor Lewis’s attorneys had hair samples from McKee to compare against the testing. (McKee had been released from prison in 2008. He was convicted in 2016 of assault and robbery of a 78-year-old woman.)

By the time of the mitochondrial DNA testing, hair microscopy had already been discredited. For example, in 2013, the FBI, the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers began a review of FBI analysts’ testimony and reports on hair comparisons. In 2015, the group said the review had found that analysts had provided erroneous testimony or reports in more than 90 percent of cases it had studied. In 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey would write, “Hair is not like fingerprints, because there aren’t studies that show how many people have identical-looking hair fibers.”

Adnan Sultan, Lewis’s attorney with the Innocence Project, filed a motion for a new trial on March 28, 2023. “The new DNA results prove that McKee was lying because it proves that Mr. Lewis did not have sex with Ms. Coleman and that he did not handle the two-by-four,” the motion said. “There is a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been more favorable to Mr. Lewis if the jury had known that the DNA evidence proved that McKee lied about these critical facts.”

The motion also said that French’s testimony that tied Lewis to the hair samples was wrong. “Post-conviction DNA results prove that no such link exists and that the prosecution’s argument was false,” the motion said.

The motion said that the DNA evidence undermined the reliability of the statement that Lewis made to police on February 20, because the statement said Brown had sex with Coleman and made no mention of McKee being present. “Yet, McKee’s sperm, not Brown’s, was found in Ms. Coleman’s vaginal swab,” the motion said. “There is no explanation for this crucial omission other than that Mr. Lewis’s statement is not true.”

The motion referenced a report by Dr. Brian Cutler, a psychologist, that highlighted problems with the statements attributed to Lewis and McKee. McKee was 16 years old at the time. “At this point in development, basic understanding and communication skills are comparable to that of an adult, but the ability to effectively reason in interrogative situations is relatively impaired,” the report said.

Lewis’s interrogation had begun at 12:34 a.m., and he was likely sleep-deprived during the five-plus hours he was questioned. That would have decreased “resistive pressure” and increased “interrogative suggestibility,” Cutler said.

Cutler said that because none of the interviews were recorded, it was impossible to know whether the statements were contaminated by investigators purposely or inadvertently telling McKee and Lewis about details of the crime. In addition, Lewis was functionally illiterate, and the police never determined if he could read the statement he signed.

On August 10, 2023, Justice Theodore Limpert of the Onondaga County Supreme Court granted the motion for a new trial and a separate motion to dismiss the charge against Lewis.

Prosecutor Robert Moran said the district attorney’s office had worked with the Innocence Project for 12 years to complete the DNA testing in this case and had joined in the motion to dismiss because there was insufficient evidence to prove Lewis’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Lewis’s wife and his mother had died while he was in prison. “I have always believed in myself, I’ve always fought for the truth,” Lewis said in a statement released by the Innocence Project. “I’ve known all along I’m innocent, but it feels good to finally have the court acknowledge it, to finally have no more lies hanging over my head.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 10/10/2023
Last Updated: 10/10/2023
State:New York
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:
Reported Crime Date:1990
Sentence:20 years to Life
Age at the date of reported crime:23
Contributing Factors:False Confession, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes