A judge called this juvenile lifer innocent, but he's still in prison. Will Philly's next DA let him go home?

Eight years ago, a federal judge heard testimony in the case of Terrance Lewis, who was a 17-year-old kid on the sticky-hot night in August 1996 when Hulon Bernard Howard was shot dead in his own home in West Philadelphia.

The judge heard from a woman who had been out on the street that evening, who said that she saw the three men who went into Howard’s house just before he was killed, and that Lewis wasn’t one of them. The judge also heard Lewis’ codefendant insist that Lewis was not there.  

“The court found the testimony of these witnesses to be credible, hence, the court believes that Petitioner is innocent,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Carol Moore Wells wrote in her report.

Then she continued, saying there was nothing she could do. For procedural reasons, Lewis' petition was denied. 

Lewis, serving a life sentence for second-degree murder, read the opinion in his prison cell in central Pennsylvania with a riot of conflicting emotions.

“The great part was, somebody finally believed me,” he said. “The sad part was, I still got to die in jail.”

But Lewis is -- depending on your perspective -- either an incredibly unlucky man or an extraordinarily lucky one. Unlucky to be charged with a crime he says he did not commit, to be tried as an adult in a state where life means life, to be appointed a lawyer who apparently never investigated his case. Lucky, because he keeps encountering more people who were out on the block that evening and are willing to testify that he wasn’t there. And lucky, because he is on the right side of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that found sentences like his to be illegal.

Lewis is one of more than 300 juvenile lifers from Philadelphia -- the largest such population in the country -- being resentenced after the court banned automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in 2012, and then in 2016 ordered that the rule be applied retroactively.

So far, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office has taken a conservative approach to these cases, often making offers of 35 years to life. 

But after 19 years in prison for a crime he says he did not commit, Lewis is hoping for a different sentence: time served.

A year ago, his pro bono legal team, David Laigaie, Kevin Harden, and Joshua Hill of Eckert Seamans, wrote to the District Attorney's Office. They asked prosecutors to review his case -- the weak evidence that got him locked up, the witnesses who say he’s innocent, his shining record in prison -- and consider a deal that would let Lewis walk free. 

They received no response.

The law is arguably not on their side. Kathryn Streeter-Lewis, the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge overseeing juvenile-lifer resentencings, said those hearings are not the appropriate venue to argue innocence claims.

Prosecutors and the court both say those claims should be argued separately, before resentencing.

“Sentencing is premised on the defendant having been found guilty of the offense," said Cameron Kline, a spokesman for the district attorney.

Still, Lewis remains hopeful. When the city's next district attorney is elected in November, he figures there's a chance that person could take a close look at his case and act on conscience. Instead of taking a hard line on resentencing, they could cut him a deal that would set him free. 

Camera icon  Courtesy of Bambi Boykin
Terrance Lewis with his son, Zahaire, over 19 years of visits to state prison. In the far right image, they're with Zahaire's mother, Bambi Boykin.

Lewis is not the only juvenile lifer claiming innocence. There are at least half a dozen in Philadelphia alone who have made such claims. Now, they will have to choose between seeking a new sentence, which could get them released immediately but keep them on parole for life, or pursuing exoneration, which could take years and is far from certain. 

One is Shaurn Thomas, who has been serving a life sentence since 1994 for his part in a 1990 murder in North Philadelphia that took place while Thomas was at juvenile court in Center City, according to his lawyers. His resentencing is on hold while his case is being appealed to Superior Court.

On the other hand, there’s Kevin Brinkley, who has been in prison four decades for a murder his family has always insisted his younger brother, Ronald, committed. In June, Brinkley is scheduled to accept a deal that will make him immediately eligible for release from prison -- but will keep him on parole for life.

Likewise, Giovanni Reid, convicted of participating in the 1991 robbery and shooting of a Penn student, Robert Janke, has accepted an offer of 25 years to life. Reid had always envisioned he would walk out of jail exonerated; he has long claimed he was merely present the night Janke was killed, but not involved in the crime. His appeals were unsuccessful.

At his resentencing in April, he avoided the topic of his innocence. Instead he expressed remorse for even being present that night and for the senseless loss of life that occurred. 

Reid is now eligible for parole.

Still, going before a parole board is no guarantee of release -- and it feels particularly uncertain for those who refuse to express remorse for their crimes.  

“Remorse is a factor that we don’t know how it’s weighed," said Hayes Hunt, a lawyer with Cozen O’Connor. "We don’t know the math of how the parole board makes decisions."

Hunt represented Tyrone Jones, who served 43 years for a gang-related execution in North Philadelphia in which he always denied participating. In June 2016, Jones accepted a new sentence of 35 years to life and was released on parole. But maintaining his innocence before the parole board "felt like a risk" at the time, Hunt said. 

Camera icon Jessica griffin / Staff Photographer
Lawyer Hayes Hunt (left), in his office at Cozen O'Connor, points out how Philadelphia's landscape has transformed in the 43 years since his client, Tyrone Jones, was arrested as a teenager for a murder Jones insists he did not commit.

Now, Brinkley’s family -- a tight-knit group that holds regular meetings to brainstorm how to support him -- worry that any minor incident could tip the scales of the parole board.  

Greg Brinkley, his uncle, said though Brinkley hadn’t had a write-up in 25 years, he recently spent time in solitary confinement. Brinkley had previously had a single cell, a privilege earned over decades. Then, they gave him a roommate. “He refused to go into a double cell with somebody, so they put him in the hole,” Greg Brinkley said.

Kevin Brinkley’s nephew, James Cade, worries for his uncle.

“He’s depressed. He lost a lot of faith,” he said. “1977 and 2017 is two different worlds. I worry about how he’ll handle himself out here.”

Even if Brinkley does get out, Cade said, that isn't the same as being exonerated. 

“We’re appreciative he’s coming home, but that don’t help the fact that he’s still looked at as a murderer.”

Camera icon elizabeth robertson / Staff Photographer
James Cade (far left) nephew of Kevin Brinkley listens as Greg Brinkley (far right), Kevin's uncle, gives an update on Kevin's case during a family meeting at a family member's home in Philadelphia on Feb. 1, 2017. Kevin Brinkley is serving a life sentence for a crime his brother has confessed to multiple times.

Nilam Sanghvi, a staff attorney with the Pennsylvania Innocence Project, explained that Pennsylvania law makes it particularly difficult to challenge a conviction.

“Pennsylvania has pretty restrictive post-conviction statutes. So, if you find new evidence … you have to file a motion within 60 days, and then you also have to show that you could not have found these witnesses earlier with the exercise of due diligence,” she said. “If you can’t meet those hurdles, the court will never even look at the substance of the evidence you’re trying to present.”

That’s the problem Lewis has long grappled with.

He had trouble presenting a defense in the first place -- in part because he was arrested more than a year after Howard was killed. By then, he couldn’t remember where he was the night of the crime.

He didn't get much help from his lawyer, who met with him just twice before the trial, and apparently never investigated the case. (He retired from practice with a disability a few years later. Eventually, he would sign an affidavit saying his work was substandard.)

Lewis said he didn’t know Howard, an addict who let drug dealers conduct business from his home on the 6100 block of Sansom Street. He was identified at trial by a single witness, who also named the gunman, Jimel Lawson, and another teen, Jehmar Gladden, who had been a friend of Lewis’ from childhood. The witness admitted using crack just before the murder. Yet all three were convicted on her testimony.

Lewis filed a series of appeals -- and caught his first lucky break.

His sister was at a bar when she got to talking with a woman, Kizzi Baker, who happened to be standing on the corner, about 10 houses down, the night Howard was shot. She knew Lewis from the neighborhood (by his nickname, "Stink"), and could confirm he was not one of the perpetrators. 

In 2009, his case landed in federal court. That's when the judge concluded he was probably innocent -- but couldn't release him.

Then, a childhood friend, Danielle Johnson, reappeared in his life. She ran a prison van service, and was going through her own difficult time. She wanted to reconnect with Lewis, who’d been her first love.

The social call had an unexpected side-effect: After Johnson posted a photo of her and Lewis together on Facebook, a former classmate, Horace Timmons, contacted her.

Timmons, now 37 and a tax preparer, had been shooting dice that night, on the corner of 61st and Sansom. 

“When I started reading on Facebook about what he was locked up for, I realized: Wow, he’s actually in there for that?" Timmons said. "He wasn’t even around there.”

Timmons also knew two more witnesses who would come forward to say the same thing.

Lewis’ lawyers have filed updated post-conviction relief petitions based on those new witnesses.

“But there is no particular established timeline for those petitions [to move forward]. They just take forever,” Laigaie said. “We believe at the end of a long and tortured legal process, we could ultimately get him exonerated. But Terrance’s life is passing by, and who knows how many years it could take.”

That’s why he wrote that long-shot letter to the district attorney in April 2016.

“The District Attorney’s Office could show a good-faith application of the law, as well as a progressive view to fixing this problem of juveniles who just got warehoused for life.”

Lewis knows one thing: If the DA offers him a standard deal -- 30 years to life, since his is a second-degree-murder case -- he's not taking it.

“I’m immune to this now. I’m desperate, but I’m stubborn,” he said.

He has plans for what’s next -- to get a job as a long-distance trucker, to care for his mother, who has cancer, and for the five kids who were left behind when his sister died of a drug overdose.

He also wants to spend time with his son, Zahaire Lewis, 19, a freshman at Bloomsburg University studying business management.

They’re already close, Zahaire said. “Although he’s been incarcerated for my entire life, there’s never been a time he wasn’t around.”

Photos from their biannual visits, though, serve as time-lapse image of lost years: Lewis unchanging in his prison garb, as Zahaire transforms from toddler to child, to awkward teenager, to grown man.

Zahaire only recently learned the details of his father’s case. “I’m disappointed in the system,” he said. “He couldn’t be there for my graduation, my other great accomplishments. There’s so much they took from me.”

Zahaire’s about as old now as Lewis was when he was convicted. Lewis said he used to worry that his son might somehow meet the same fate as him.

“I have recently stopped having that fear, because of me believing in God," Lewis said. "I experienced all the trials and suffering and pain, so perhaps my son won’t be subject to them.”

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