After 41 years, juvenile lifer could be freed next week

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — A juvenile lifer who has spent the last 41 years in prison for killing an off-duty police officer could be released after a circuit court judge set a bond hearing for next week.

Charles Lewis’ attorney Victoria Burton-Harris said in court Friday that her client’s prison sentence was vacated five years ago and that he was eligible for bond.

Lewis has been behind bars for the fatal shooting of a 27-year-old off-duty Detroit police officer, Gerald Sypitowski, at an east side bar July 31, 1976. Lewis was 17 when he was imprisoned.

“It would mean that I can live again,” Lewis’ mother, Rosie Lewis, said of her son’s possible release. “I haven’t been able to live.”

Lewis is one of dozens of juvenile lifers in Michigan who are seeking new sentences after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that a life sentence for juveniles is “cruel and unusual” punishment.

Prosecutors across Michigan and the country were ordered to review cases where juveniles were given life in prison to see if they should receive new sentences.

Burton-Harris said the bond hearing Oct. 13 will determine if Lewis can be released pending further proceedings. It’s unclear why Lewis was still being held in prison after his sentence was vacated, she said.

“It’s the most bizarre and inappropriate, inhumane treatment for a citizen of this country to be held for five years with no sentence,” Burton-Harris said.

The hearing Friday raised a number of issues that stem from the court losing the files from Lewis’ original case.

In November 2016, a judge ordered that the files be reconstructed.

Burton-Harris asked the court to release a free copy of the reconstructed files to her client.

However, she is urging the judge to certify the files before they can be used in a resentencing.

“He has not received a copy of his file since it’s been lost, stolen, run off with, marked up, signed up,” Burton-Harris said. “He has nothing. The docket is bare.”

Charles Lewis also expressed concern about not knowing the contents of the file since the case is so old.

“I’m the only one that’s been here for the last 40 years,” Lewis said. “This is not the original prosecutor, you’re not the original attorney, this is not the original judge.”

Judge Qiana Denise Lillard said she would order the court to give Lewis the re-created files by Oct. 16.

Prosecutors argue the task of reopening the cases is daunting partly because witnesses are no longer available and some case files are not easily accessible.

Lewis has made separate arguments for the court to dismiss his case, saying U.S. Michigan Supreme Court case law bars the reconstruction of lost criminal files.

Rosie Lewis said she believes her son was wrongfully convicted.

She said the off-duty officer’s partner testified about seeing the shots come from a white Continental that she says her son was not inside.

In a 2006 opinion, Judge Deborah Thomas of Wayne County Circuit Court said she reviewed the trial transcript and that the judge unconstitutionally dismissed Lewis’ first jury without cause.

“I truly believe that the file was lost purposely because there are things in the file that would exonerate him,” Rosie Lewis said. “He was locked up at 17. He didn’t know the law and neither did I; since then, we have discovered many things that were done illegally.”

Hearings regarding the lost case files are expected to resume in March.

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Twitter: @NicquelTerry