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Philly judge stuns wrongly convicted juvenile lifer by setting him free after 21 years in prison

Wednesday morning, Terrance Lewis, 40, was released — a free man for the first time since he was 17 years old.

Terrance Lewis, center facing camera, receives a hug from his father Michael Lewis, after getting out of prison in Chester, May 22, 2019.
Terrance Lewis, center facing camera, receives a hug from his father Michael Lewis, after getting out of prison in Chester, May 22, 2019.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

After fighting for 21 years to be exonerated of participating in a 1996 West Philadelphia murder, Terrance Lewis had given up.

He withdrew his petition to vacate his conviction in February — an agonizing decision — to clear the way to be resentenced after a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that automatic life-without-parole sentences for juveniles were illegal. It would mean he’d get out of prison eventually — but he’d be on parole for life, and his name would never be cleared.

Tuesday, something happened at his resentencing that neither Lewis and his lawyers, nor the District Attorney’s Office, whose Conviction Integrity Unit had been investigating the case, had anticipated.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott decided to review his innocence claim on the spot and — due to what she deemed “a denial of due process” — threw out his conviction. The district attorney declined to retry the case.

And Wednesday morning, Lewis, 40, was released — free for the first time since he was 17 years old.

A few hours later, he emerged from the Chester state prison with a wide smile, as if into the world’s most unusual surprise party — embracing his family members and legal team, then joyfully greeting faraway loved ones FaceTiming from Tennessee, Texas, and across Pennsylvania on three cellphones.

“I was just existing for 21 years,” Lewis said. “Now, I’m about to live.”

He expressed gratitude to the judge, Cummings, and District Attorney Larry Krasner, whom he called “true advocates of justice.”

But has his faith in the system been restored?

“I have mixed emotions about the system. At one point in time, I thought the system was broken. I no longer think it was broken. I think it was designed that way. They had the opportunity to release me and they didn’t.”

That is, until McDermott took up the question of his innocence.

“She heard all the evidence Terrance has been screaming about for 21 years, and said he should be released.… She expressed a willingness to listen, and that’s all Terrance needed,” said Kevin Harden Jr., part of a legal team that has championed Lewis’ case pro bono for a decade.

That work started in 2008, when David Laigaie was appointed to represent Lewis in a federal petition. At that time, Magistrate Judge Carol Sandra Moore Wells wrote in an opinion that it seemed apparent Lewis was innocent, but that for procedural reasons she could not grant him relief.

Lewis had been sentenced to life in 1998 for second-degree murder — participating in the robbery of Hulon Bernard Howard, who was shot and killed by one of Lewis’ codefendants. But over the years, thanks to Lewis’ own investigation, work by his lawyers, and collaboration with the Conviction Integrity Unit, which finally turned over the homicide file within the past couple of years, the case against him began to disintegrate.

“The constellation of events that led to him being wrongfully convicted is only matched by the constellation of events that resulted in him being freed,” Harden said.

The one witness against him, it turned out, had initially identified a different perpetrator. But that information, recorded in the homicide detective’s notebook, was never shared with the defense.

And his trial attorney never investigated the eyewitnesses who emerged over the years to come forward and say Lewis was not at the scene. (The lawyer, who stopped practicing a few years later, would eventually sign an affidavit acknowledging his work was subpar.)

When Lewis decided to abandon his innocence claim in order to seek a new sentence (a Philadelphia judge had determined that resentencings could not go forward for anyone still challenging their convictions), his lawyers made a strategic decision to downplay his innocence claim at the sentencing proceeding — where the focus often turns to assessing the offender’s remorse. They feared his denial would result in an even longer new sentence.

“The thinking was, post-sentencing, we could file a federal habeas petition,” Laigaie said.

So, Lewis went to court, praying for any judge but McDermott, who is not known for lenient sentencing.

“I thank God my prayers weren’t answered,” he said.

In light of the evidence, family members of Howard, the victim, also supported Lewis’ release, according to those present at the hearing.

For Lewis, it feels a lot like the first break life has given him. He grew up in extreme poverty, shuffling all over Philadelphia, attending nine elementary schools in three years, and dropped out of school in 10th grade to work full-time. At one point, in Strawberry Mansion, he was sharing a room with eight brothers and cousins, all piled into two bunk beds or sprawled on the floor.

Jerome Conquest, 32, a cousin, recalled stacking milk crates and blankets in a corner — the closest thing he could get to a bed.

But Lewis, known among loved ones for his positive attitude, declared it “cozy, not crowded,” and one of the best times of his life.

“I can’t even begin to express it. We’re all totally elated,” said Michael Lewis, Terrance’s 58-year-old father, who had traveled from Marion, Ark., with his wife, Yvette, 52, for the resentencing — and found out his son would be released instead. “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the courtroom.”

They were already talking preparations for reentry, whether they could give Lewis one of their cars.

“We got to get him a learner’s permit first,” Harden remarked.

All of Lewis’ plans for the future have been scrambled. He had intended to get his commercial driver’s license paid for under a program for parolees. Now, with no criminal record, he is aiming higher — a college degree and work in the criminal justice system, where he can help others in the same straits he just escaped.

Cummings said when she was hired to run the Conviction Integrity Unit, staffer Andrew Wellbrock gave her a short list of cases he believed demanded immediate attention. One was Lewis'.

But investigating such an old case is difficult. And even after she grew convinced there was an injustice, she said, “all of us were challenged for a long time to figure out what we could do to right this.”

She noted the legal system is set up to protect faith in convictions and ensure finality. “But occasionally, the mechanisms put in place to ensure that finality can stand in the way of releasing an innocent person.”

Outside the prison, Laigaie thanked Lewis for his patience. “I’m sorry it took so long,” he told him.

Lewis was busy absorbing the 21st century.

“This is my first selfie!” he said, as his lawyers pulled him in for a photo. “I got to get me a phone so I can start taking selfies.”

It’s one of many benchmarks of adulthood Lewis missed out on, that he hopes to reclaim.

That, and being there for his son, Zahaire, 21, born a month after Lewis was incarcerated.

But first up Wednesday was getting out of prison garb. So, a trip to Springfield Mall, where Lewis entered the jeans department at Macy’s and promptly gave up trying to sort through the styles, cuts, and waist sizes.

“That’s my problem, that’s institutionalized. I’m so used to somebody telling me" what I can wear,” he said before settling on sweat pants. Then it was on to sneakers.

“I’m in state boots,” he said. “I’m ready to go barefoot right now.”

A celebratory meal would have to wait. Lewis, who was on his way to the mosque when police picked him up in 1997, has never wavered on his Muslim faith. Since it’s Ramadan, he’ll wait until sundown.

Then, it’s all about shrimp cocktail, he said. “I haven’t had shrimp in 20 years.”