Elusive court files block possible freedom for juvenile lifer
A difficult to find court file could be the only thing standing between Charles Lewis and his freedom from a life sentence.
Lewis, who is now 59, has spent 41 years behind bars in the fatal shooting of a 27-year-old off-duty Detroit police officer, Gerald Sypitowski, at an eastside bar July 31, 1976. Three hearings have been held on his bid to be set free from his life sentence but each has ended with lingering questions about his voluminous files.
The files, which Lewis’ mother, Rosie Lewis, says are contained in enough boxes to fill three hand carts, were allegedly stored at the Vigliotti Building on East Jefferson, near Interstate 75. Rosie Lewis says she has viewed the files at the beginning of the case and in recent years before they disappeared.
Wayne State University Law School professor Peter Henning, who is also a former federal prosecutor, says a lost file could have serious consequences.
“In the absence of documentation it could make it impossible to impose a life sentence again,” Henning said. “There is no basis to impose it if (the court file) is missing. What is the appropriate sentence? How does the judge make a decision in the dark? The court is really hamstrung on whatever sentence it can impose.”
Charles Lewis is one of dozens of juvenile lifers in Michigan who are seeking new sentences after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled four years ago 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.
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.
A spokeswoman for the Wayne County Clerk’s Office denied the file is missing.
“The file has not been determined to be missing,” Jina Sawani said. “We are actively and diligently searching and every effort is being made to produce the file as soon as possible.”
Henning said that while it isn’t a common occurrence he has heard of missing court files, especially with older cases. It is also is difficult to duplicate what is contained in court files.
“How will courts proceed when detectives are not around? Judges are not around and prosecution witnesses are long gone?” Henning said.
Under Michigan court rules, an individual who wants to see a file may apply to the court which has jurisdiction over the case for a duplicate of the lost one to be prepared. The court also may issue subpoenas to compel witnesses in the case to be interviewed, examined or testify about facts in the case.
Third Circuit Court Judge Qiana Lillard is expected to issue a ruling over whether to dismiss the case against Lewis in the next week.
Lewis is among the 146 juvenile lifers from Wayne County serving the rest of their lives behind Michigan prison walls. There are more than 360 such cases in Michigan dating back more than four decades. Wayne County’s oldest case dates back to 1963.
Rosie Lewis said her son is innocent and was playing lead guitar with his band at a union hall when Sypitowski was shot. 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 in.
Lewis, who is serving his time at Lakeland Correctional Facility said at one of his earlier hearings: “Right now I’m 59 years old and the best years of my life are behind me. So, I fight to make things better for those coming behind me. Hopefully, if I play my part they won’t have to go through what I’ve gone through.”
He has said in filings and in letters to local media that it would be “unconstitutional” to resentence him without the benefit of his case files being found.
“They can’t sentence me because of the loss of my files, and if Judge Lillard does sentence me, it would be unconstitutional,” Lewis said. “I will appeal, and a higher court would have to overturn it.”
At a hearing for Lewis on Sept. 6, Lillard said: “I think it’s very important that this file be found.”
Finding the files has been a key issue in the past two hearings for Lewis. At an Oct. 28 hearing, Lillard questioned a staff from the Wayne County Clerk’s office, which is responsible for storing the files.
In those files, according to Rosie Lewis, is an order from a former Wayne County judge vacating her son’s long prison sentence.
Lewis’ appellate attorney, Valerie Newman, filed a motion last month asking for a prison term which can effectively free Lewis from the life sentence and set him free. The Michigan Department of Corrections parole board will make the final decision if Lewis should be free.