Missing file holds up juvenile lifer's bid for freedom

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Charles Lewis has been waiting more than four decades to escape from a life sentence for the murder of an off-duty Detroit police officer Lewis’ mother and supporters say he didn’t commit.

The one thing that might be standing in the way of Lewis’ freedom is a missing court file, composed of documents that could fill three hand carts.

Rosie Lewis holds up a photo of her and her son Charles Lewis, who has been serving more than four decades on a murder conviction.

Lewis is among hundreds of adult defendants who were sentenced as teenagers to life prison sentences for violent offenses such as murder. Prosecutors across the country are bringing the cases back up for resentencing under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that life sentences for juveniles constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Lewis, now 59, has spent 41 years behind bars for the fatal shooting of 27-year-old off-duty Detroit police officer Gerald Sypitowski at an east-side bar July 31, 1976.

At a June 19 hearing, Wayne County Circuit Judge Qiana Lillard told Lewis officials are trying to “recreate” his missing file.

Lewis’ mother, Rosie Lewis, said she cannot understand how the files could get lost.

Charles Lewis listens to attorneys address the court during a hearing on October 6, 2017 in Wayne County Circuit Court.

“For 42 years, you haven’t preserved his record?” asked Lewis. “How do they catalog and keep their files?”

Lewis says she has maintained some files herself.

“I have kept my own files all these years and I don’t have any experience in record-keeping,” she said. “That’s the court’s (problem). The process isn’t working.”

In the court files, according to Rosie Lewis, is an order from a former Wayne County judge vacating her son’s long prison sentence.

Several hearings have been held on Lewis’ bid to be set free but each has ended with persistent questions about the court files.

Lewis and his newly appointed attorney, Sanford Schulman, have not agreed to accept a newly created court file in order to move forward in Lewis’ bid to gain his freedom.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is waiting to see how Schulman proceeds but believes Lewis should remain incarcerated, said spokeswoman Maria Miller.

“The prosecution is requesting life in prison without parole in defendant Lewis’ case,” she said Friday in an email. “It is an infrequent occurrence to have a file that is missing. When that does happen the court will ask the parties to work together to recreate a file.

Rosie Lewis talks about her son's case. Charles Lewis has been serving more than 4 decades on a murder conviction after being sentenced as a teen.

“That is what happened in this case with his prior attorney. Currently there is a new attorney who will be filing a motion objecting to the recreated file. When it is received we will respond.”

Files from Wayne County Circuit Court are stored in the Vigliotti Building on East Jefferson, near Interstate 75. The Wayne County Clerk’s Office is responsible for court files for all of the Circuit Court’s civil, criminal and juvenile courts.

“We are unaware of how the file became missing, despite exhaustive efforts from the Wayne County Clerk’s Office staff,” said Lisa Williams-Jackson, a spokeswoman for Clerk Cathy Garrett. “This is not a common occurrence.”

This is the first time, according to Garrett’s office, that a court file has come up missing.

Legal experts like Lawrence Dubin, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School, say the loss of a court file could have serious legal implications.

“If his file is missing ... and cannot be reasonably reconstructed in a timely manner, perhaps his constitutional rights can be afforded by a parole hearing to decide if, and more likely when, he should be released,” he said.

He added: “The United States Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional to sentence a minor to a prison term of life without the possibility of parole. Such a sentence is a violation of the 8th Amendment as a cruel and unusual punishment. Therefore, Mr. Lewis is entitled to resentencing.”

Rosie Lewis says her son 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.

Rosie Lewis says she wants police to produce the gun authorities say her son used to shoot and kill Sypitowski.

“They have convicted him without ever having a weapon,” she said.

Lewis, who is serving his time at Lakeland Correctional Facility, could not be reached for an interview. He has attended some of the hearings in his case.

At one of those hearings, he said: “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.”

Lewis has said in filings and in letters to local media that it would be “unconstitutional” to resentence him without recovering his case files.

“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 before a hearing in September 2016. “I will appeal, and a higher court would have to overturn it.”

At a June 19 hearing, Schulman said it’s crucial all of the records be produced.

“It is important that the file is complete,” he told Lillard.

The judge replied: “I know that the county clerk’s office went through great efforts to try to work to recreate the file and it’s my understanding that they continue to look for the original file.”

Lillard has ordered a copy of the recreated files be sent to Lewis in prison. Both Lewis’ attorney and the prosecutor are reviewing materials that have been used to recreate Lewis’ file.

Lewis told Lilllard the trial transcripts are missing information. “From March 9 to March 23, 1977... that transcript is incomplete,” he said at the June 19 hearing.

Lewis also told the judge there is a “gap” in his file between 1977 and 1980.

Lillard told Lewis she has not made a final ruling on whether a recreated court file would allow the case to move forward.

Lewis, who has attended most of the hearings via video, is due for another hearing Aug. 3.

Rosie Lewis, meanwhile, remains unconvinced her son will get a fair shake. She said she feels the court file is missing as part of effort to keep her son behind bars for good.

“They hid it to keep certain things from coming out,” she said. “They can do anything they want within the law. They have done it with him.”