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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, November 12, 2013 6:02 pm

Retrial underway over Cleveland fire that killed 9

The Associated Press

Attorneys for both sides laid out their cases Tuesday to open the federal retrial of a man charged in a Cleveland fire that killed a woman and eight children at a birthday sleepover.

Prosecutors contend Antun Lewis set the 2005 blaze that became Cleveland's deadliest house fire, but a defense attorney argued Lewis had no motive to do that.

Lewis, 29, won a new trial based on unreliable prosecution testimony from jailhouse informants. Some of those informants will be called again, and the defense plans to try to cast doubt on their testimony by offering other jailhouse informants as witnesses.

Timothy Ivey, an assistant federal public defender, told the new jury the government made its case using unreliable testimony from inmates seeking leniency.

"These are the most desperate of criminals - informants all connected to each other who worked together to fabricate and lie in the case against Mr. Lewis," Ivey said, according to The Plain Dealer.

The prosecution said its informant witnesses provide the truth. Those witnesses are making an exception to the criminal code against snitching because the horrifying fire claimed the lives of eight youngsters, who huddled in a bedroom as they were overcome by smoke and heat, Assistant U.S. Attorney David Sierleja said, according to the newspaper.

He said Lewis set the fire "maliciously and carried the action out intentionally," WJW-TV reported. The blaze killed Medeia Carter, 33, four of her children and four other youngsters on May 21, 2005.

Authorities say Lewis was upset over a drug debt and dumped gasoline to set the fire. He maintains his innocence.

Lewis could face life in prison if convicted. He was deemed ineligible for the death penalty because of a mental disability. Evidence presented by the defense showed that Lewis has an IQ of about 70 or less, meaning he falls within the range of mild mental retardation.