A True Story
This story is told through original reporting and observations, extensive interviews, court and police documents and personal journals. Quotation marks appear if I witnessed the exchange, took language directly from documents or journals, or interviewed the speakers about their recollections of past events.
When the metal gates rattled open on cue at 3:45 a.m. Derris Lewis was already awake. As usual, he lay silent in the dark on the top bunk, recalling what he could of his dreams, trying to carve every detail into his memory. It would be hours before the sun would rise and he would have enough light to record it on his yellow legal pad with all of the others.
This one was about Dennis. Most of them were. This time they were in their old bedroom at their mother’s house, and Dennis was throwing flip flops at him.
The lightness of the dream felt like a cruel tease, a flicker of his former life, when he wasn’t locked in a tank at the Franklin County Correctional Center.
“I am sick of this place,” Derris thought, closing his eyes, hoping to return to sleep for a few hours.
Derris grew up on the north side of Columbus, Ohio, in a neighborhood known for drugs and gangs. For years he shared a tiny, two-bedroom house there with his mother, his brother and whatever aunts, uncles and cousins needed a place to crash. He was accustomed to tight, messy spaces but this place, this tank called 4 East Right 1, was ghastly.
Fleshy pink paint peeled from the walls like a festering wound. Silverfish skittered across bare, concrete floors. The smell – the stench that results from shoving 12 men into one large room – was so unbearable that Derris covered his nose with a sock for most of the day and night. The only privacy came in the makeshift bathroom, a curtain of garbage bags and T-shirts arranged around the tank’s single toilet.
While his tankmates passed the time surfing channels on the old television set – mostly landing on Court TV and 48 Hours Mystery, placing lively junk food bets on “who done it” – Derris filled his empty hours lamenting his situation.
Only a few months earlier, he’d been the head drum major for his high school marching band, an honor roll student who had earned a full scholarship to Ohio State University, a cashier at Giant Eagle.
Now he was that kid on the news, that dead-eyed, thick-necked teenager in the mug shot, that twin.
The transformation, this new, involuntary existence, was barely tolerable for Derris. He longed for what he knew outside of the county jail: his family, his girlfriend, a new pair of Jordans, a proper haircut.
“I am suffering for what? Only God knows that,” Derris thought.
Around 4 East Right 1, this kind of injured innocence wasn’t unusual. Everyone claimed it, some because they couldn’t admit the truth to their families, others because they feared another inmate using an admission as leverage for his own freedom, a few because they had nothing but a denial left to cling to.
Only Derris, it seemed, claimed innocence because he actually believed it.
It’s hard to say just how many people have been wrongfully incarcerated in this country. Some studies claim as many as 10,000 per year. That’s one to two percent of all incarcerated people. They are the victims of flawed forensic science, forced confessions, overzealous prosecutors, mistaken eyewitnesses.
Only a fraction manage to get out – just 2,000 since 1989, according to one report. And even when they do, life rarely returns to normal. Strangers stare. Friends disappear. Paychecks become scarce.
We like to think it couldn’t happen to us, not in this country, not under the watchful eye of technology, not with the glut of scientific tests and advances. We think people who are incarcerated may be innocent of this crime, but they are certainly not innocents. There must have been some reason for the police to look their way, some hint, however subtle.
It gives us comfort to believe this, that evidence doesn’t form out of air, that the truly innocent don’t suffer, that justice prevails.
But the Derris Lewis case proves that's simply not true.
No one who knew Derris or was involved in his arrest was fully convinced he had actually committed a crime – not his family, not his teachers, not the lead detective on the case, not the police interrogator who arrested him, not the juvenile judge who ordered him tried an adult. Even his tankmates thought he was too soft to have committed a crime so brazen and violent.
But still, there he was, locked tight in 4 East Right 1. When daylight finally came to the tank, Derris slid from his bunk and crept past the open gate, into the common room. He climbed onto one of the long tables, sat cross-legged and stared out of the narrow window near the ceiling. From there he could see the hole city workers had torn in the earth, where they poured the foundation for a new courthouse. The construction site had become his calendar. He watched the steel beams rise and the glass façade glitter in sunlight, knowing each day the building changed was another day lost. He wondered if his trial would eventually be held inside; if he could possibly be locked up that long. He imagined what else was changing beyond his tiny window to the world, which friends still believed in his innocence and which ones had been swayed by the newspaper and television stories. He tried to remember what it felt like to take fresh air into his lungs, to rest his head on a pillow at night.
“I am getting out of here,” Derris promised himself in a whisper.
But first he and the two young lawyers who had agreed to defend him would have to show that the police and local media had made a series of dangerous and mistaken assumptions when it came to Derris and his identical twin brother.
They would have to find a concrete way to prove what they already knew: Derris was innocent.
On January 31, 1990, at 3:34 a.m., April Lewis gave birth to a son she named Dennis Lekeith.
Twenty seconds later, Derris Lequise was born.
Family who came to visit April in the days following marveled at the identical twin brothers lying side by side on a white blanket. At that moment, nothing differentiated them. Weighing in at just over four pounds each, they were tiny mirror images and brand new, yet to be marked by the experiences that would shape them and grow the personalities that would distinguish them.
April recognized a special bond – that twin bond people talked about, she supposed – when Dennis and Derris were still babies. She’d put them in their crib for a nap and when she’d return to check on them she’d find they hadn’t slept. Instead they lay facing each other and babbling. She’d crack the door and watch in wonder as her boys held what appeared to be a conversation in a language known only to them, pausing long enough for the other to respond, gurgling and giggling in the appropriate places. She called them her Little Dennis and her Little Derris.
When they began to talk, they called each other, simply: Twin.
To the untrained eye, April’s boys were impossible to tell apart, especially when they were dressed alike, their long hair pulled into identical ponytails so that strangers often mistook them for girls. But she knew the subtleties that distinguished them.
Though he was technically younger, Derris was the bigger twin. Everything about him was round and plump. Dennis’ features were slightly sharper. His eyes and face sloped gently at the edges, like almonds. And while Derris was quiet and willful, Dennis was loud and reckless. He swung fearlessly from monkey bars and knocked out baby teeth when he ran into a tree at the park behind their house. One day, when big sister Diane took the twins to Woolworth’s at the City Center Mall in downtown Columbus, Dennis’ untied shoestring caught in the escalator. He tripped and struck his head, splitting skin. An ambulance transported the three siblings to the emergency room where Dennis got stitches and Derris got a popsicle. The resulting scar allowed acquaintances to tell the twins apart.
That day, like so many days before and after it, the Lewis children were on their own. The twins’ father left when they were still in diapers. And April had long ago given in to poverty and hopelessness.
It hadn’t always been this way for April. She grew up in a large, working class family, became a track star in high school and looked longingly toward a college degree. But that was before she gave birth to Diane in 1977, when she was just 16. Her first son, Larry, came three years later. She moved them all into a duplex on the city’s dodgy east side. With just a high school diploma in hand and little help from her babies’ fathers, it was hard to find the money to feed the little ones. Men with commitment and drug problems were easy to invite into her life and difficult to kick out. Drugs started looking like the answer to her, too, a way to erase – if just for moments – the hardships she’d been handed and the dreams that she’d lost. Her children, like a lot of children in the neighborhood, grew up too fast. Diane ran the house; Larry ran the streets outside.
Nothing about April’s life looked the way she had once imagined it would and, by the time the twins were born, she was letting her free spirit fly untamed. She smoked crack with friends and boyfriends and made foolish, hasty decisions.
One of those decisions involved marrying a man she’d known for just two weeks. His name was Alfonso, and no one who loved April had any love for him.
Alfonso lived by a strict code of conduct and expected those around him to do the same. Any dissention or deviation from what he deemed proper behavior resulted in violent punishment. He whipped the then 6-year-old twins with a leather belt that he’d marked with red letters: Dennis and Derris ass whooping belt. He once hit them so hard with a wooden cutting board that it split in half. The boys thought for a moment that Alfonso had softened when he came home with a puppy named Lucky, but he took Lucky to the pound four months later, after the boys acted up at school.
What he did to Dennis and Derris wasn’t the worst of it though. April’s children recall watching helplessly as Alfonso dragged their mother across rooms by her hair, slapping and kicking her when she tried to defend herself. To escape the madness, April hid in her locked bedroom, Larry spent more time on the streets, and Diane moved out of the house completely. She was just 15, working two jobs to pay her rent and buy her younger brothers extravagant Christmas gifts. She knew they wouldn’t get anything otherwise.
On the afternoons she didn’t work, Diane stopped at her mother’s house to pick up Dennis and Derris and whisk them away for a while, to give them a glimpse of something sweet, to give them a chance at something normal, to keep them from ending up in a place that was worse. “They are not going to child services,” she declared.
But the twins couldn’t be fooled. At 6 years old, they couldn’t fully comprehend the shackles poverty had already placed on their lives, didn’t yet recognize the scars abuse had already left on their psyches, but they knew they were different.
They didn’t have to look beyond their own family to see that other people had better, easier lives. Cousin William lived in a suburb north of Columbus with the sweet, dreamy name of Strawberry Farms. They thought he was rich because he played video games on his own system, and his father drove new cars and his mother – April’s older sister – made pancakes in the morning. Their Uncle Gregory – April’s brother – had gone to college and worked as an executive for Norfolk Southern Railroad.
“I wish I was him,” April would whisper in awe when he visited.
It was clear to Dennis and Derris that another life was within their reach, might even be in their genes, but that life certainly didn’t exist in their neighborhood. To achieve it, they’d have to get out.
So, sitting in the bedroom where they’d once babbled in their secret, nonsensical baby language, they made each other a real, adult promise. They weren’t going to be like their stepfather. They weren’t going to take drugs or hit women or terrify children. They were going to college. They were going to escape poverty.
They were going to be better.
When the twins were 10, Alfonso disappeared.
No one could quite say why he left. Maybe he grew bored with fathering or frustrated with fighting. Maybe he found another woman to love. It only mattered to Dennis and Derris that he was gone. They saw hope in his absence.
Diane saw it differently.
She was old enough to remember the kinds of things her mother did to shake the loneliness and longing of a breakup, so she was not the least bit surprised when its immediate aftermath appeared less than rosy. It seemed the one thing April Lewis feared more than Alfonso was life without him. April was alone again, a single mother of four children once more, and, for a time, just as Diane feared, April turned to drugs and men to fill the void Alfonso’s absence had left. What Diane didn’t expect, couldn’t have predicted, was that, on the way down, her mother would grab onto the lifeline her twins had inadvertently tossed to her. Their promise to each other, their drive, their sweet wholesomeness in a world that sorely lacked it, reminded her of the girl she used to be. It kept her from dropping over the edge of the cliff she had been teetering on for so many years. April might not have been able to show her sons what success looked like, but she was going to do her best to push them toward it, reinforcing the goals they’d set and the lost ones she wished she’d kept.
“How you going to be smart if you don’t stay in school?” she’d ask them.
“Go have fun, but know your boundaries,” she’d warn them.
“You gotta be strong in this neighborhood,” she’d remind them.
April feared the world on the other side of her front door, the drug dealers who offered kids $10 to wash their cars with sparkling rims. April knew these men had likely already pegged her boys as future employees, as kids young and naïve enough to do the dirty and dangerous work of carrying drugs for the few hundred bucks it took to buy a fresh pair of jeans or Jordans.
So while other boys ran drugs and joined gangs, April celebrated each time her boys cooked dinner or ironed their T-shirts or spent hours on their homework. They existed wholly apart from the neighborhood in which they lived – until Jan. 15, 2003.
The twins were just 12. When a group of similarly aged friends rolled up in a car they were all too young to drive, Dennis and Derris climbed into it.
It was a naïve and hasty decision – the kind preteen boys are apt to make – but it proved to be a critical misstep in their young lives, a blight on their otherwise unblemished characters. Because when the police pulled the car over, knowing what Dennis and Derris did not, they took everyone inside of it downtown. The car wasn’t just full of preteens without licenses; it was stolen. The twins were handcuffed and photographed; their fingertips rolled in ink and pressed firmly onto cardboard.
After one night in juvenile detention, April was allowed take her boys – her Little Dennis and her Little Derris – home. The police decided not to press charges and April decided that the east side of the city would no longer be home.
They were headed north. They were moving to Linden.
Linden wasn't a special place, just a neighborhood north of Columbus where railroad workers and their families lived in two-and-three-bedroom bungalows and Cape Cods. By the late ‘90s, the railroad workers' children had grown and gone. The residents had turned mostly gray, too frail or tired to put a fresh coat of paint on their houses or fix a dangling shutter or mend a broken fence. But their tiny square lawns were always cut close, and they babied their flowerbeds and trimmed their hedges and waved at their neighbors.
This is where April Lewis decided to start over, where she quit drugs and men cold turkey, where happiness – real happiness, not the short, hazy euphoria of a crack pipe – felt attainable. April was ready to be the kind of mother to her twins that she hadn’t been to Diane and Larry.
But before they could settle into that dream of a new life, before April felt that happiness she’d longed for, she felt something else. It was a tingling in her limbs; a fatigue she couldn’t shake. She recognized the symptoms: multiple sclerosis. Her central nervous system had long been under attack. Doctors diagnosed her in 1992. They warned her that, as the fatty sheath protecting her nerve fibers slowly disappeared and scar tissue grew in its place, messages her brain and spinal cord wanted to send the rest of her body would be disrupted and distorted. And now it was happening.
Doctors couldn’t give her a reason. Maybe it was time. Maybe it was stress. Maybe it was exposure to some environmental agent. All they knew for sure was that, over time, it would get worse, much worse.
Physically, April knew her future was bleak, but she believed she could still build a home in the tiny, white bungalow at 1161 Loretta Avenue, in Linden, believed she could still raise her identical boys into respectable men.
She never considered what was truly to come. That there, in that house she planned to fill with happiness, one of her boys would remain a boy forever and the other one would be forced to grow up too fast.
They were a force of more than 100, clad in crisp black and orange uniforms, capes hanging from their shoulders like superheroes, shining instruments held aloft, each step powerful and carefully choreographed so that 100 moved like one. And then suddenly, without warning, the marching stopped, and the bone-rattling music began.
It was obvious that this band took its cues from the Historically Black Colleges and Universities of the south, hips swaying, brass dancing. They weren’t just a band; they were a party with instruments.
Dennis and Derris stood still in their middle school auditorium, enraptured with this performance taking place in front of them. Though neither of them could play an instrument, they had the same reaction: They wanted to be East High School Mighty Marching Tigers.
Across the room, away from the band, stood its director, Martha Hal. She couldn’t see Dennis or Derris, but she knew their reactions well, the immediate and visceral desire to be a part of something so much larger and powerful than themselves. When she searched for new band members, it was this reaction that she looked for first. She didn’t want musicians; she could teach them to play. She was looking for kids with character, kids who cared, kids willing to follow her prescribed and dignified way of moving through the world
Hal’s strict system had proven a success. When she arrived at East in 1997, the band was literally a joke. People snickered at their mismatched uniforms and instruments held together with duct tape. By the time Dennis and Derris saw them, they were generally regarded as the best show in the city. And their achievements transcended music. While more than a quarter of East students failed to graduate and less than 15 percent went to college, all of Hal’s Marching Tigers earned diplomas and many of them college scholarships.
So when Dennis and Derris returned home that night after watching the band and begged April to join, she didn’t hesitate to say yes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as signing a permission slip. Their neighborhood didn’t feed into East High School. They’d have to take their chances in the Columbus City Schools’ lottery system, so it was possible that neither one of them – or worse, just one of them – would win a spot at East.
April, though, was willing to take that chance.
A lottery ticket to East would buy April’s boys more than a high school education; it would give them something to belong to. To April, this band, these Mighty Marching Tigers, seemed like the answer.
Derris won a ticket to East, and begged the principal to accept his brother, too, which is how, the summer before ninth grade, Dennis and Derris ended up on a band bus to Camp Otyokwah, a retreat center north of Columbus.
It was just over an hour from home, but to kids who had never ventured outside of “the loop,” – the highway that draws a circle around Columbus – it might as well have been Alaska. Hal allowed no electricity, no cell phones, no distractions. She wanted to jolt the kids, to show them life beyond their houses or neighborhoods.
Because East served students from some of the most dangerous and poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Columbus, Hal saw real-life examples of the stark numbers research institutes compiled: Black children are two-and-a-half times more likely to experience poverty. Nearly 70 percent of black children born into poverty go on to spend their adult lives in poverty. Boys have it worse. Only a third of persistently poor boys are consistently employed as adults.
But for Hal, the problems were more immediate. Her students got hit. They got called names. They got shot at. They slept on the streets. Dennis and Derris’ home life was uniquely difficult. As April’s health deteriorated, the twins took on the role of caregivers. They performed tasks for their mother – bathing and feeding – that other teenagers couldn’t fathom.
Hal’s goal was to show these kids – all of these kids – that someone cared about them and expected something of them. Camp was their first introduction to that world.
On the first day, they practiced until 1 a.m., marching across a grassy field until their feet ached. She woke them three hours later to practice some more. When one kid played a piece wrong, everyone played it again.
“When it hurts, march harder,” Hal barked. “When it’s difficult, yell louder. Pain is temporary. Orange and black pride is forever.”
She wanted to tire them out, to force them to lean on one another and form indestructible bonds. And it worked. By the time the week was over and they boarded the bus for the hour-long ride back to Columbus, Dennis and Derris were weary, sunburned and completely inspired.
Over the next four years, the twins built their lives around the Marching Tigers. They called Hal “Mama Hal,” dated fellow band members, practically lived in the band room. Derris’ girlfriend, Kristian Holloway, described it this way to a Columbus Dispatch reporter in 2007: "There's no place I'd rather be. This is like a sanctuary of love. This is your family when no one else is there."
In that family, Dennis took the part of the charismatic, and sometimes cantankerous, brother. He played the sousaphone, so loud that his single instrument sounded like three or four. The other kids called him “Sonic Boom.” Hal admired his spunk and his talent (she thought he had enough of it to play in college). When she pointed out his mistakes and ordered him to play again, he’d drop his instrument and roll his eyes. “You do it,” he’d tell her. But then he’d put the brass back to his lips and perform again, flawlessly.
Derris was the classic overachiever. He wasn’t as talented with an instrument, but Hal recognized his showmanship. Derris looked her right in the eye when he was performing, he could dance, and he craved feedback and criticism.
When both brothers tried out for drum major their senior year, Hal had a nearly impossible decision to make. If she chose them both, Dennis’ big personality would overshadow his twin’s. If she chose just Derris, Dennis’ ego would be wounded and he might never forgive her. If she chose just Dennis, Derris was likely take the rejection well but might never develop into the leader Hal believed he could be.
In the end, she chose just Derris. She thought he needed it more.
Because they were rarely apart – they took the same classes, shared the same friends, worked the same shift at the same job – and so much alike – they giggled incessantly and were forever smearing Carmex on their lips – those who didn’t know the Lewis brothers well lumped them together as one, even referring to them the way they referred to each other: “Twin.” Hal and the rest of the Marching Tigers, though, understood their quirks.
Dennis was the goofy and impulsive one. He liked to laugh loudly and argue small points endlessly, especially with Derris. Anything could turn into a squabble: Who had ironed the sharper crease into his shirt? Who would get to work first?
“He’d start any argument for humor,” says Andre Johnson, the twins’ friend since middle school. “They’d be super giggly about it. Sometimes they couldn’t even get out what they’re saying, they’re laughing so hard.”
Most of Dennis’ earnings went to clothes, tennis shoes and nights out with friends. His antics, particularly those having to do with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jasmine, were legendary. Once, when they broke up in the lunch line at school, Dennis immediately turned to his friend Cjanelle Sanders and grinned, “Since I’m single, you want to go to homecoming?”
He ended up taking both Sanders and her sister, whose dated cancelled at the last minute. He walked into the dance with a sister on each arm and a huge grin on his face.
“Dennis,” Sanders says, “was one of the guys.”
Derris was different, more cautious and serious than his twin, more likely to spend time by himself. Even within his own family, he was a bit of a loner. While Dennis shared a close relationship with Diane, showing up in her living room nearly every night to complain about his girlfriend, Derris shared little with his sister. In fact, beyond Dennis, no one in the Lewis clan was capable of piercing the bubble Derris had placed around his inner thoughts.
At school, he was known as the quiet twin, the smart twin. He had an almost obsessive dedication to schoolwork that drew admiration from his teachers, but exasperated Dennis and his friends.
“If he was handed back a grade he didn’t like, he’d go to the teacher and say, ‘explain this please,’” Sanders remembers.
And he had this prescribed way of dealing with the world, a moral code from which he never wavered. He refused to take a job unless the employer would hire Dennis, too. When chronically late Dennis made Derris tardy for school, Derris punished him for the rest of the week, making him take the bus instead of riding with him in their car.
Hal believed that naming Derris head drum major would draw him out of his own head and into the world, and that his strict self discipline would serve as an example for the other kids. As usual when it came to matters of her students, Hal was right. Derris relished his new role, upholding Hal’s standards among his peers, asking for perfection. He wasn’t afraid to order dissenters to do pushups or run laps.
“Sometimes, I thought he was me,” Hal says.
Their connection was apparent at Derris’ 2006 band camp. At the end of a long week, he gathered everyone into a giant circle for a group prayer. Hal stood on one side of him and, when they clasped hands to pray, both felt electricity shoot through their limbs and saw an ugly scene flash in their heads. Later, when they discussed it, they realized they’d had the same premonition: Someone in that prayer circle was in trouble.
Hal thought for sure it was a boy named Andre. The streets had been calling him, and she had been searching for a way to keep him from straying.
“We have to help Andre,” she told longtime Assistant Band Director Marcel Reeder.
“You worry too much,” Reeder told her.
Hal was right to be worried, but she was worried about the wrong boy.
Joey Westbrook was a drug dealer. Everyone knew it. His mother. His friends. The police.
He operated mostly in Portsmouth, Ohio, a small town directly south of Columbus where he didn’t have as much competition from fellow dealers and where he could escape the watchful eye and resources of the big city cops.
When he needed a break, a respite from the life of a dealer, he drove north to Columbus and parked his car – his conspicuous car with shining chrome rims – on the street in front of his Aunt April’s house at 1161 Loretta Avenue.
Though she had to know his occupation, April had neither the strength nor the inclination to turn Westbrook away. He was family. She allowed him to have his mail sent to her and insisted he sleep in her room. She never used it. As her multiple sclerosis progressed, she’d taken to sleeping on the living room couch instead of in her bed. It was more comfortable and easier for her to get up if she needed the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Westbrook agreed, but he used April’s room for more than sleeping. One afternoon, as Derris crept down the hallway, he spotted his cousin counting tiny, round pills on his mother’s bed.
In that moment, Derris made a choice: He was leaving.
He’d been considering it for weeks. His mother’s house had become a distraction, with relatives moving in and out at will, taking advantage of April’s illness and generosity. And the Linden neighborhood that had once appeared so innocuous, sleepy and a bit worn, was now showing the marks of a burgeoning drug zone, not unlike the one the family had just escaped. When the elderly residents who primarily populated the neighborhood died or moved away, young men, mostly 20-somethings, moved in. They weren’t unfriendly, but they seemed to live a nocturnal and detached existence, one that Derris recognized well.
He couldn’t find the time or space to study in that atmosphere, and he wasn’t going to let anything affect his grades or jeopardize his future. He was in the top five in his class, and he planned to graduate there.
Kristian Holloway’s sister agreed to rent the couple a room in her house on the city’s east side - $150 a month. Because he was so meticulous about his money, letting it accumulate in his account without spending, he could afford it.
He didn’t discuss it with Dennis. He didn’t need to. Dennis had plans to move to Daytona Beach with Andre Johnson and room together at Bethune-Cookman University. Derris had already agreed to stay behind and care for their mother. This was his only chance for a break, for a bit of freedom.
So on November 17, 2007, Derris packed his things and kissed his mother goodbye.
She patted him on the shoulder and repeated four words: “Be safe, Little Derris.”
Every January, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, the Columbus Education Association holds a banquet in a downtown ballroom. The top students from each of the city’s 24 high schools are invited to attend, and a humanitarian award is given to a person who has embodied a commitment to human rights in the Central Ohio area.
In 2008, the banquet was held at the Hyatt Regency, the award went to the Rev. Leon Troy, the city’s first African-American fire police chaplain, and Dennis and Derris Lewis were asked to represent East High School at the event.
The brothers were thrilled. They were going to sit with the city’s smartest, most prominent black residents and eat salmon and broccoli and baked potatoes.
They met at April’s house early to get ready. Dennis picked out a brown half-zip sweater.
“Brown,” he said, “looks good with my skin.”
Derris chose a simple button down shirt and tie, only he had no idea how to tie it. Dennis rolled his eyes and dragged his brother into the bathroom.
There, in front of the bathroom mirror, Dennis showed his twin how to tie a half Windsor – bring the wide end across the narrow end, turn it, wrap it around, turn it again, tuck it under, pass it through the loop, tighten it, make sure it’s straight.
When Dennis was done, the mirror images grinned at each other in the mirror.
They looked good.
Ninety miles to the south, in New Boston, Ohio, police pulled over a 2007 Ford Mustang and ordered its occupant to get out. The department had a search warrant for his apartment and reason to believe he’d been selling cocaine and Oxycontin.
Within hours, police had searched the residence, seized $12,000 worth of drugs and arrested Joey Westbrook on charges of possession and trafficking.
It was Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008, the day after the Martin Luther King, Jr. banquet. April was already settled on the couch when Dennis came home and slammed the side door of the tiny white bungalow. She immediately stretched her arms toward him. Though he was just weeks away from his 18th birthday and months away from moving out of the house for college, he had never outgrown this nightly ritual, never protested when it came time. He bent his body over the couch and pressed his lips lightly to her cheek.
“Good night, Mommy,” he whispered, before straightening his back and heading for his bedroom.
April smiled and closed her eyes. “Good night, Little Dennis.”
She didn’t think to ask if he remembered to lock the door.
Just before 2 a.m., April woke to a jiggle at the side door. It took her a moment to clear the sleep from her head, but it seemed to her that someone was using a key or a credit card to unlock the door and get into her house. Or maybe the door hadn’t been locked at all. Before she could figure it out or call to Dennis, three intruders burst inside. They were wearing masks and gloves. As April struggled to sit up, one of them pulled a gun and held it to the side of her head.
“Don’t look at me,” he shouted. “I have a gun.”
April obeyed, turning her head to stare into the darkness.
“Where’s the money?” he asked.
April was confused. “What money? We poor! We don’t have any money.”
Behind her, April could hear the other two intruders rummaging through her purse, tossing kitchen cabinets and opening the attic door. She prayed that Dennis could hear them, too. The intruder with the gun pushed the barrel harder against April’s head. “Who’s in the house?” he asked.
April began to cry. “Me and my son, that’s it,” she said.
Just then, April heard a thud in the hallway, then another and another. They were breaking down Dennis’ locked door. She started to call for her son, and he must have heard her through all the commotion because, instead of staying in his room where he could have scrambled out of a window or called for help, Dennis burst through his broken door and began fighting with the intruders. April couldn’t see it, she was glad for that, but she could hear it – the awful sound of flesh hitting flesh, of air being knocked out of lungs, of metal hinges creaking and wooden doors cracking and fragile glass shattering.
“He’s too strong,” one of the intruders yelled.
That was April’s “Little Dennis,” who would use every bit of his strength and 161 pounds to protect his mother, to take down the three intruders who threatened her. He wasn’t going to let them go; he wasn’t going to back down. Even after they broke a bar stool over his head, even with blood covering his face and his hair, even though one of the intruders yanked out a fistful of his dreads, Dennis wouldn’t stop coming. The one with the gun walked into the hallway and raised his arm. He was going to have to shoot to make Dennis stop.
The bullet hit Dennis in his left shoulder and traveled through his lungs, nicking his heart and liver. He slumped to the floor, his legs stretched across the narrow hallway; his upper body resting against the first few steps leading to the attic.
“Come on, let’s go,” the shooter called as the intruders chased each other out the door, one in front of the other, all in a row.
And then there was silence.
Though Diane had spent most of her 30 years resenting her mother for choosing drugs and men over her and Larry, she softened when April got sick. As a nurse’s aide, Diane knew what lay ahead and, as much as she wanted to hold tight to her principles, she couldn’t ignore her mother’s suffering. Besides, as a young, single mother herself, she had some idea of the hardships her mother had endured.
So she moved to 1149 Loretta Avenue, in Linden, just two doors down from her mother’s house. That’s where she stirred from a fitful sleep on the night of January 18. She’d given up sleeping in her bed. Her difficult fourth pregnancy gave her back aches and night sweats, so that evening she’d made a nest on her bedroom floor where she could lay flat next to the open window and fall asleep to the sound of the television.
But now it was almost 2 a.m., and the voices in her television sounded too loud, too insistent. She turned off the set, but the voices didn’t stop.
“Dunn. Dunn, help, your brother been shot.”
Dunn? That was her. And that tiny voice calling out her name belonged to her mother. Diane jumped up and stumbled to the window to hear her better.
“Dunn. They shot your brother. He’s laying on the floor.”
Dennis! Diane ran to her bedroom door, threw it open and bolted down the eleven steps from her room to the first floor. She was shaking and stumbling, wearing only a T-shirt and underwear. Her oldest daughter met her in the hallway.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” Diane said. “Where’s my cell phone? Where’s my cell phone?”
When she couldn’t find it, she grabbed her daughter’s and dialed.
“911. What’s your emergency?”
“I need to, um, a squad at 1161 Loretta Avenue.”
“What’s going on ma’am?”
“My, uh, my brother just got shot. I’m not really sure, my momma’s outside, she’s handicapped and she’s out there fussing. She’s hollering right now, I don’t know.”
“He’s been shot?”
“He’s been shot, he’s laying on the floor.”
“Does anybody, does anybody know what happened or anything?”
“I don’t know, but I gotta do CPR, whatever, if I can. I’m not really sure what’s going on. I gotta go over here with my mom.”
“Does anybody know who did it?”
“No. I don’t know.”
“I’m just going next door. Please send ‘em, I’m not really sure what’s going on.”
“All right, we’ll get them out there.”
Diane grabbed her house keys and stepped outside. The air felt like ice.
“Stay in the house,” she ordered her children. All three of them were up and worried now. “Lock the door and don’t answer it unless you hear my special knock.”
Diane ran barefoot across the neighbor’s yard. The cold ground felt like needles. When she reached her mother’s house, she found April on the porch, wearing nothing but a thin nightgown. The door was open, and Diane could see someone had made a mess of her mother’s kitchen. She stepped inside and held her hands out in front of her until she felt a lampshade. Once she got it upright and turned on the light, she gasped. The house was a disaster. Every cabinet in the kitchen was bare, the contents scattered on the floor. Couch pillows and cushions were strewn across the living room, furniture overturned and lamps broken. Nothing seemed to be in one piece.
“Mom, what happened?” Diane screamed as she ran back outside and picked up her mother from the ground.
April was speaking only in high-pitched, nearly incoherent phrases: “Robbed us. Had a gun. Help your brother.”
Diane put her mother on the couch and began screaming her brother’s name – “Dennis!” – running from the living room to the kitchen to the hallway. Suddenly, she stopped. The door that led to the attic staircase blocked her way. It was open and appeared to be cracked. She tried to push it, but it wouldn’t budge; Dennis’ body lay in its path.
Diane started to panic, throwing her body, belly and all, against the attic door, rocking it back and forth, back and forth until it fully broke from its hinges and she could squeeze her body past it. Her brother was sprawled across the hall, his back on the first few steps to the attic, blood covering his face, his eyes rolled back so far in their sockets that all she could see was white. She counted three gashes in his head and guessed at least one of them was from a bullet.
“Don’t die on me, don’t leave me,” she whispered, kneeling down beside him and taking the pulse in his legs, his neck and his arms. She couldn’t find one. She pressed her ear against his chest. After a moment she heard a hollow knock echo in his ribcage, then, five seconds later, another. He had a heartbeat! She could save him.
She wrapped her arms around his limp, heavy body and yanked until his torso slid down the steps and onto the floor in the hallway, where she could lay him flat. But moving her brother only made Diane panic more. She had inadvertently placed his body over an air vent, and she could hear the blood dripping down into it. Just as she was about to begin CPR, the police arrived. For the first time since she heard her mother’s cries for help, Diane stopped moving, stopped running on adrenaline and fear, and she began to sob.
She stumbled to the front porch, away from Dennis’ bloody body and the cops and the paramedics who had just arrived, and choked back cold air. Across the street, a neighbor stood in his doorway, watching. Diane started toward him.
“What did you see?” she screamed. “What did you see?”
The neighbor stared at her and said nothing.
After the paramedics loaded her brother into an ambulance and the police took her mother away for questioning, Diane pulled out her daughter’s cell phone to dial Derris’ number. Her trembling fingers hovered over the keypad. She stopped. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t be the one to tell Derris that his twin was gone, to change his world forever. And though no one had confirmed it for her yet, she knew in her gut that Dennis hadn’t made it; she knew it when they carted him away, his arm dangling limply from the gurney.
No, she couldn’t share that image with Derris yet. She would give him more time to live without the pain. So she called her cousin instead. She called her aunt. She called Larry. She dialed family member after family member until she couldn’t avoid it anymore.
Finally, she called Derris. In a darkened bedroom across town, his cell phone lit up and started singing Lil Wayne’s “Hustler Music,” waking him and Holloway.
It was 1:57 a.m.
Derris answered the phone with a groggy greeting.
On the other end of the line, Diane was trying to hold it together. She meant to be calm and gentle, to be reassuring, but, when she finally spoke, her terror spilled out: “Your brother has been shot in the head!”
Derris’ own head was thick with sleep, masking the significance of his sister’s words. “Stop playing, Dunn,” he mumbled and hung up.
Seconds later, the phone rang again. This time, when Derris picked it up, Diane was already yelling. “I’m not playing. Your brother has been shot in the head, and he’s on his way to the hospital.”
“My brother?” Derris asked, confused. He was sure she didn’t mean Dennis. He’d just seen Dennis. After school, they’d driven to Giant Eagle together to pick up their pay stubs. “Larry?”
“No,” she said. “Your twin.”
Derris hung up and leaped out of bed, fear and adrenaline shooting from his heart to his limbs. He frantically reached for the robotics team tracksuit he’d tossed on his dresser days earlier and told Holloway he had to go.
He didn’t bother to warm up the old Mercury. He just got in and drove, the speedometer needle hitting 80 miles per hour the entire way to Linden.
As soon as Derris turned onto Lexington Avenue in Linden, he understood why his sister sounded so hysterical on the phone. Flashing lights illuminated the neighborhood for blocks. He threw the car into park, left it running in the street and took off toward 1161 Loretta. A police officer stopped him. “You can’t go in there. It’s a crime scene.”
Breathless, Derris turned toward his sister’s house. People were beginning to gather in her tiny Cape Cod, spilling out of the kitchen and living room, into the hallway and onto the porch. He waded into the crowd, frantically asking questions, but no one seemed to know much more than Diane told him on the phone. His sister wasn’t even sure where the ambulance took Dennis; he could be at either hospital: OSU East or OSU Main. Family members drove to both, in search of some information. Anything.
Derris couldn’t wait for reports from the hospital. He marched back into the street, approached the first police cruiser he saw and knocked on the window. It was Paul Fedder, who had heard the 911 call on the scanner and rushed to the scene to establish a police line. He was the first officer to set foot in April’s home. But Fedder offered little information. Frustrated, Derris returned to his sister’s house. She was on the phone.
“Who is that?” Derris whispered into her left ear.
Her cousin Robert Lewis, who was calling from the hospital, spoke into her right ear.
“Sit down, Dunn,” Robert told her. Then he confirmed what Diane already knew: “Dennis went home.”
Diane dropped the phone and looked at Derris. He was trying to read her, trying to guess the news.
“I’m sorry, Derris. He passed away, Derris.”
Derris backed up slowly, stumbling blindly toward the door. The crowd of family members who stood in his way parted to make a path for him. He screamed at Diane as he went, spitting his words like venom.
“You don’t tell me that. He made it. You don’t tell me that.”
He started moving faster then, running away from the truth, running toward air. What his sister told him just couldn’t be true. Not Dennis. Not Twin.
When he reached Diane’s front lawn, he fell to his knees and screamed into the sky. Diane chased him down, carefully lowered her very pregnant body to the ground beside him and wrapped up her youngest brother in her arms.
“I’m sorry, Derris. I’m so sorry.”
By 3 a.m., a team of third-shift homicide detectives from the Columbus Police Department had gathered at 1161 Loretta. Althea Young, an experienced cop with 28 years on the force – 17 of them in homicide – was named primary investigator.
She was known on the force for taking a business-like approach to tragedy. That night was no exception. She quickly delegated the tasks typical of a fresh crime scene: David Dennison would videotape the scene and speak with first responders. Philip Paley would canvass the neighborhood, searching for witnesses. William Snyder, Larry Bisutti and Tom Burton of the crime scene search unit would process the scene. Mark Green would head over to county morgue on King Street, where Dennis’ body had been taken, to collect fingernail clippings and blood and hair samples. Jay Fulton would observe the autopsy.
Young took a slow walk through 1161 Loretta, carefully navigating the path of destruction the intruders left behind. They emptied cabinets in the kitchen. They dumped April’s purse, knocked over lamps and ripped cushions and pillows from the couch in the living room. They dumped drawers and tossed clothes in April’s bedroom. They rifled through shoeboxes in the attic. But it was in Dennis’ room where they had done the most damage. Blood speckled the walls and stained the carpet. Dennis’ clothes and the contents of his wallet littered the floor. A bar stool and mirror lay broken near the door.
Snyder, Bisutti and Burton combed through the chaos, taking 146 photographs, lifting 68 fingerprints and collecting 23 pieces of evidence, including Dennis’ Sidekick cell phone, the bar stool and a bank receipt. They found no money in the room, so either the intruders found what they were looking for or, as April claimed, there was no money at all.
Before the trio of detectives left on that first day, Young called them to the northeast wall of Dennis’ bedroom to inspect a spot between the window and the television set. It was obviously the site of a struggle. The blinds were twisted and broken and spotted with blood, and a fan had been knocked over into a pile of clothes. It was the wall Young was concerned about, though. She found a smear of blood on the white paint and, in it, she thought she could see the familiar curves and ridges of a fingerprint. Maybe it belonged to one of the intruders. The crime scene detectives snapped a photograph, took a swab of the blood and sawed out that area of drywall so they could take it back to the lab for further testing.
Meanwhile, at the county morgue, Dr. Rajesh Kannan began the autopsy of Dennis Lewis. “The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished, black male, 69 inches tall, weighing 161 pounds and appearing the stated age of 17 years. The deceased is nude.”
Medics had cut Dennis’ blue T-shirt off at the scene as they assessed his wounds and condition, and a detective had collected the rest of his clothes at the hospital shortly after doctors pronounced him dead. The marks of his time in the emergency room remained, however. A tracheostomy tube still protruded from his neck and defibrillator pads still clung to his chest. An intraosseous needle, used in emergencies to inject fluids directly into bone marrow when veins have collapsed, still stuck out of his right leg.
Kannan immediately noticed the evidence of a fight. Dennis had cuts on his head, his nose, his lip, his chest, his palms, his arms, his knees and his back. A colored contact lens covered his right eye, but not his left; presumably he’d lost it in the struggle. A V-shaped gash marked his forehead. But it was the gunshot wound on the left side of his chest that Kannan inspected most carefully. On its way in, the bullet left a just tiny hole, less than a half a centimeter in diameter. Inside is where it inflicted its damage, cutting left to right across Dennis’ body, and nicking his heart and liver before coming to rest against a wall of chest muscle. The trauma caused more than 20 percent of the blood in his body to pour into the chest and abdominal cavities.
More blood had escaped through his nose and mouth as medics worked to revive him in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Each time they compressed his chest, the skin around the tiny bullet hole opened and closed liked a gaping mouth.
Kannan supposed, with such wounds, Dennis would have died within minutes.
People kept coming to Diane’s house. Family. Friends. Friends of family. Friends of friends. They stood in the kitchen, lingered in the hallway, crouched awkwardly on the steps Diane had run down in a panic just hours earlier.
Derris could feel the weight of their mourning, could feel their sympathetic glances and helpless stares. His mother had taught him to stay strong in adversity, to remain stoic in turmoil and, in the hours since Dennis’ death, he had done that. He’d comforted his family, spoken with the cops, offered sound bites to television reporters. But now he needed to mourn, too, and to do that, he had to get away.
He called Holloway and asked her to bring him the clothes he had laid out for school the night before. When Holloway arrived on Loretta Avenue, the couple climbed into the Mercury and made the familiar, two-mile drive to school. This time, though, no one was in the back seat. There was no giggling, no arguing.
There was no Dennis.
When they arrived at school, the halls of East were unusually quiet. Everyone knew. The news of Dennis’ death had trickled slowly through the student body, from student to student, cell phone to cell phone, friends leaving each other weeping voice mails or sending mass “rest in peace” text messages.
Cjanelle Sanders found out at 3 a.m. when Derris called her cell phone. “My brother’s been shot in the head,” he screamed and hung up.
He called back within moments, sobbing, hysterical. Sanders could barely understand him. When he hung up again, she crept down the hall and into her mother’s room and turned on the television. She saw Derris, looking wild and scared, talking to a reporter.
Andre Johnson, who routinely turned his phone to silent at night so he could sleep undisturbed, woke to find he had fifteen missed calls and eight texts messages. What is going on? he wondered as he quickly scrolled through them, searching for the answer. He found it in a text from a classmate named Dominique. She wrote: “Gone but never forgotten. RIP Dennis.”
Like Derris and Holloway, when the sun rose, Sanders and Johnson headed for East. When they arrived, hearts knocking wildly in their chests, they moved quickly through the halls, all headed in the same direction. They were going to the place they all felt safe, the one place they knew they could go when things weren’t right. They were going to Martha Hal.
Just like the line of mourners at Diane’s house had worn on Derris, the endless line of students in her office was taking its toll on Hal. Derris had called her cell phone early that morning to tell her about Dennis. “Please pray,” he begged her. And she had, but she knew no amount of praying was going to change what had happened at 1161 Loretta. She stared at the students huddled together on her office floor, crosslegged and crying, she watched one of them punch a wall in frustration and break his hand and she knew – nothing will ever be the same.
For a decade, she’d been selling students a prescription for a better life: Speak in complete sentences. Shake hands firmly. Look people in the eye. Carry yourself above scrutiny. Dennis followed it, to the letter. While she worried about other students, students she feared were too weak or weary to say no to the empty promises of the streets, those streets had swallowed Dennis whole. The irony, the sheer irrationality, of it terrified her.
On the Sunday after Dennis died, Columbus police knocked on Diane’s door and handed April’s house keys to Derris. They were done with them.
Derris stared down at the brass in his hand. It was time.
He took a bucket and a rag to the bedroom he’d once shared with his twin and, ignoring Diane’s objections, began wiping red streaks from the walls, soaking up puddles from the floor and chipping dried blood out of the air vents. He couldn’t explain it in a way that made sense to anyone but him, but he felt he had to do it. They were twins. Dennis’ blood was Derris’ blood.
“He would have done the same for me,” Derris told Diane.
Later that week, when Derris designated himself a pallbearer, Diane protested again. Why couldn’t he just sit with the family? In Derris’ head, the reason made sense – if someone had to lift his brother, to carry him out of the world, it should be the person who loved him best when he was in it – but he couldn’t find the right way to tell his sister. He’d never had to put words to his feelings before. Dennis had always instinctively known how his twin felt.
Longing for a way to connect with his sister over their shared loss, Derris began leaving her rambling letters on the kitchen table.
They may have been addressed to Diane, but as she read the letters, so raw, so smudged with grief, she realized they were really written to Dennis:
“He is gone to god now. It is just me and my family so we have to take care of my mother. Now things are clear and we have to realize all the children my mother has she loves. I am Derris Lewis and my friend was my big bro Dennis Lewis. I love you very much and love will always be in my heart. My sister’s children I love so much. I will provide for them like my twin brother would have. I am learning how to cope with this whole idea and when I grow up to become the person who I am I will remember what you gave me.”
On the morning of the funeral, Derris donned one of the brown suits he’d purchased earlier that week and knotted his orange tie in a half Windsor, just the way Dennis had taught him. The funeral director dressed Dennis the same.
They were going to dress alike one last time.
Derris had already seen his brother in the basement of the funeral home before the ceremony, whispering a pair of fitting final words – “Goodbye, Twin.” When he saw the hundreds of mourners waiting to pay their respects at Triedstone Missionary Baptist Church, he was thankful for the private farewell.
Cousins, friends, politicians, teachers, coworkers and strangers filled the pews. The East High School Mighty Marching Tigers, those who could bear it, dressed in their black and orange wool uniforms and marched stiffly down the center aisle, playing a somber tune. Some didn’t make it through the song, dropping their instruments away from their faces to cry. When they reached the front of the church, Sanders found herself next to Dennis’ casket. It was covered with orange roses and filled with the cap and gown he would never get to wear. She stared hard at his face, unsmiling, so still, so different from how she remembered him.
Hal followed the band, taking the microphone and a long breath that filled her lungs. In the week since Dennis’ murder, she’d barely slept. During the day, she comforted students in the band room and at night, she sat up alone, listening intently to each creak of her house. She had never felt unsafe in her own home before, but Dennis’ death shattered any sense of security. She agreed to speak at the funeral because she knew how much it meant to Derris, but she had to lean heavily on her faith to make it through.
“I don’t understand why this happened,” she said. “But it’s all right that I don’t understand. Because of what I believe, I know that I’ll see him again.”
The mourners who had resisted emotion through the band’s performance and Hal’s eulogy lost their composure when Derris and his cousin William stood to sing.
Death can't take me
Job can't make me
Bills can't break me
Disease can't shake me
You won't drown me
My God surrounds me
That's what I told the storm
Many recognized it as the same hymn Dennis and Derris sang at the ninth grade talent show. It seemed so unlikely, so unfair, that a boy who would sing a gospel hymn in front of his entire school, without irony or shame, could be gunned down just three years later.
It weighed especially heavy on Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman. He was elected in 1999 and had spent a large chunk of his time and energy on reducing crime and bolstering education. Dennis could have been the poster child of his efforts. Instead, he was a painful reminder of the city’s shortcomings.
After the funeral, Coleman wrote a letter to the Lewis family on city letterhead:
“I am saddened by the loss of Dennis Lewis. Even at his young age, Dennis was a valued member of our community; we have lost one of our most precious commodities – a youth with a promising future. His is an incredible legacy; he made his short season with us mean something. To family and friends I extend my sincere condolences; to Dennis’ young friends I charge you with continuing his legacy.
Please know the entire Lewis family and your host of many friends will certainly be in my thoughts and prayers as you continue through your healing process. May the good times and happy memories you have shared throughout Dennis’ lifetime sustain you in this difficult time.
May God grant you comfort and peace in the loving reminiscences you have of Dennis.
Michael B. Coleman
A rumor soon spread through the Lewis family that Coleman had a photograph of Derris blown up, framed and hung on his office wall as a reminder of all the wrongs he had yet to make right.
Althea Young arrived at the Columbus Police Department late on the evening of January 21 to find a message on her desk. It was from a second-shift homicide detective who had fielded an anonymous call earlier in the day. The caller, a woman, claimed that she knew who killed Dennis Lewis. It was a 17-year-old boy named Rob and police already had him in custody for carrying a concealed weapon; the same weapon used in the murder.
Young immediately pulled the recent arrest files and began searching for a Rob. She stopped when she came across Robert Shepherd Holmes, who had been picked up at 1:30 a.m. on January 19 along with three other boys. The arresting officer noted that Holmes was carrying a Taurus .38 revolver. It was the same type of weapon police believed was used to kill Dennis Lewis.
She had to get that gun.
Within hours, Young had talked to the arresting officer, retrieved Shepherd’s gun from the police property room and driven it over to the crime lab, where ballistics examiner Mark Hardy promised to test it immediately.
Hardy had already tested the bullet Dr. Kannan pulled from Dennis’ body. He believed it had been fired from a weapon whose barrel had five lands and grooves, with a right twist. Lands and groove are created when manufacturers cut into the sides of a barrel, from chamber to end, so that the bullet spins when it exits the chamber. To the lay person, it doesn’t mean much. To the gun owner, it means a more accurate shot. And to gun experts like Hardy, it means the bullet can be traced back to the weapon that fired it.
Young was hoping that Hardy could do just that when she delivered Holmes’ confiscated weapon. Hardy loaded the gun with .38 Special bullets and fired into a tank of water. But when he fished the fired bullets out and compared their striations to the ones left on the bullet that had killed Dennis, he couldn’t match them. There weren’t enough differences to exclude Holmes’ gun from the investigation, but there also weren’t enough similarities to conclude it had been used in the murder.
He notified Young of his findings.
It was a setback, but not a reason to drop the Robert Shepherd Holmes angle altogether. In fact, the angle became even more intriguing when a girl named Keyseana Hensley confided in a teacher at Premier Academy of Ohio.
She knew her friend and classmate Robert Shepherd Holmes had been arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and she heard it was the weapon used to kill that boy up on Loretta Avenue. But she also knew this: that gun didn’t belong to Holmes.
What if the police blame Robert for that boy’s murder? What if he never gets out of jail?
Hensley’s teacher listened to Hensley’s tearful story and tried to come up with a solution. Hensley didn’t want to go to the police station with the information – she was too afraid – but what about the officer who worked special duty at the academy?
Officer Steve Rosser listened carefully as Hensley’s teacher explained the situation, but he had questions. Why would Robert Shepherd Holmes be carrying a gun used in a murder he hadn’t committed? Could Hensley be confused or lying? “No,” Hensley insisted. “Just ask Patrick.”
Patrick was Patrick Shepherd Holmes, Robert’s brother, and he was willing to tell Rosser the whole story: Their cousin, who they called Bump, told Robert to take his gun and hold onto it or he’d kill him. Robert was scared, so he did what Bump said, but when the cops busted Robert for violating the city’s midnight curfew, they found Bump’s gun on him and threw him in jail. Robert refused to tell the cops the truth, though, because if Bump found out he snitched to get out of jail, he might kill Robert anyway.
“What’s Bump’s real name?” Rosser asked.
“It’s Billy,” Patrick told him.
That night, Rosser placed a call to Young to tell her what he’d learned from Hensley and Patrick. Young listened with interest. It was all beginning to add up. She remembered that, on the night Robert Shepherd Holmes was arrested, he’d been with three other boys. One of them was Billy Horton, known on the streets as “Bump.”
By early February, the third shift homicide detectives who caught the Dennis Lewis case had a theory. Robert Shepherd Holmes, Billy “Bump” Horton and at least one other teenager heard that Joey Westbrook had been arrested in Portsmouth, and his stash of drugs and money could be found at his aunt’s house on Loretta Avenue. They hatched a plan to break in and take it, but they hadn’t counted on Dennis Lewis putting up a fight. When they realized he wasn’t going to back down, they fired a shot, grabbed what they could – including clothes and shoes – and ran. They thought they’d gotten away with it, until cops stopped Holmes for breaking city curfew and found a gun.
Ballistics couldn’t prove it was the gun, but there were other ways to prove that Holmes and Horton had been in the Lewis house that night. Crime scene detectives had lifted 68 fingerprints, and then there was that print Young spotted in blood on the bedroom wall. If any of those prints matched Holmes or Horton, the investigation would be over.
But when latent fingerprint examiner Mark Bryant finished identifying the prints in the Lewis house, he approached the detectives with some shocking news. None of the prints lifted from the crime scene matched Robert Shepherd Holmes or Billy “Bump” Horton. But he had found a print on that piece of drywall that detectives had cut out of Dennis’ bedroom wall and carted back to the lab. It was a right palm print and it belonged to person #105393J.
Young thought she might throw up.
#105393J was Derris Lewis.
She didn’t believe it.
“Test it again,” she ordered.
Franklin County’s First Assistant Prosecutor Doug Stead stared across the conference table at Althea Young. He couldn’t believe it. Columbus detectives wanted to charge Dennis Lewis’ own twin brother with his murder?
Under normal circumstances, detectives in Ohio are not required to notify prosecutors before pressing charges against a suspect. In the case of Dennis and Derris Lewis, Young decided to do it differently. She arranged a meeting with Stead and his boss, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien. She knew the media would scrutinize the case, and she wanted to know she had their support.
If we’re going to do this, Stead thought, we had better be certain.
So, after their meeting, he began picking Young’s case apart, interview by interview, print by print, crime scene photograph by crime scene photograph.
Stead is something of a legend in Franklin County, tall and lanky, his hair cut into a bowl that would look boyish if it weren’t gray. He grew up in Ohio, attended law school at Ohio State University and has worked in the county for most of his adult life. Along the way, he earned a reputation as a firecracker – a lawyer so obsessed and enthralled with justice that any deviance from it seems to offend him personally. He took an early stab at private practice, clerking for a large firm in the city when he was in college, but he couldn’t shake the pull of criminal law. He joined the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office in 1984, and by 1989 he was named a senior prosecutor. It was an unusually quick climb in the ranks, but justified by this fact: Doug Stead is damn good at his job.
And within moments of reading the Lewis case files, he had a theory that called Young’s entire case into question.
When the city’s latent print examiners matched the crime scene lift to Derris’ palm print they used the prints taken back in 2003, when the twins were arrested for taking part in their friends’ joyride. What if Dennis and Derris’ prints had gotten mixed up and examiners had matched the print to the wrong twin? What if that bloody print left at the scene actually belonged to Dennis?
Print examiners went to work again, comparing the prints taken from Dennis at the morgue to those taken at the crime scene and at the time of the twins’ arrest. They had an answer almost immediately.
Stead was wrong. The palm print at the crime scene indisputably matched Derris Lewis.
Stead sighed. “Bring him in,” he told Young.
He was going to have to find a way to prove that the person who purported to love Dennis best was the very person who took his life.
Derris arrived at the police station just after 8 a.m. on February 13, eager to see the new evidence Detective Young claimed to have in his brother’s case. He wasn’t surprised when Young summoned him to the station – he’d been in constant contact with her since the night of his brother’s murder – but he was surprised when another detective greeted him upon arrival and led him into an interrogation room.
Jay Fulton had been on the case since the night of the murder when he interviewed a trembling April in the back of a police van and observed Dennis’ autopsy. Now, because he was considered one of the most skilled interrogators in the department, he was charged with trying to elicit a confession from their unwitting suspect.
“Derris, do you remember me?” Fulton asked after Derris had shed his winter coat and taken a seat across the table from him.
Derris grinned. “Oh, yeah.”
“Good,” Fulton said. “Well, we’ve had close to a month to look at this case and we’ve looked at it from a lot of different angles. We got some physical evidence back from the scene that we want to go over with you. You familiar with what your Miranda Rights are?”
“Well, I’m going to read them to you this morning to protect you because I’m going to ask you some questions.”
Fulton paused. “Did you think this day might be coming?”
Derris looked at the bespectacled detective, eyebrows knitted, confused. He didn’t understand the attempt at foreshadowing.
“Some of the physical evidence has indicated some involvement on your part in this case and we gotta talk about that,” Fulton continued. “It’s the pink elephant sitting in the middle of the room, and I want to get your side of the story.”
Derris nodded, but he still didn’t comprehend the weight of Fulton’s words. It wasn’t until the detective explained his accusation, step by step, that the teenager began understand: the evidence that Young wanted him to see pointed squarely at him.
“The reason we’re here, and what brought us here this morning, is that we took 96 some odd fingerprint lifts from your mom’s house,” Fulton said. “And you would be able to explain your prints because you come and go to see your mom.”
“Oh, yeah, always,” Derris agreed.
“They would be on things,” Fulton continued, “but one of the things they probably wouldn’t be on, wouldn’t be in, would be in the bedroom …”
“No, they would be in the bedroom,” Derris interrupted. He had shared that bedroom with Dennis for nearly four years before moving in with his girlfriend.
“Would they be in the bedroom in blood?” Fulton asked.
“Not in blood, no.”
Fulton paused and nodded. He was ready to corner Derris, ready to reveal the evidence that appeared to prove the teenager’s guilt. “How could we explain one of your palm prints being in the crime scene?”
Derris shook his head slowly, eyes wide. “My palm prints? That’s crazy. In blood?”
Fulton opened the file folder he’d placed on the table between them and began pulling out the evidence Young’s team had compiled over four weeks: the crime scene log, the print examiner’s report, the photographs.
Derris allowed his eyes to fall on the papers, but he didn’t really see them. His head was too cloudy to focus on the words.
“My palm print?” he asked again, grabbing chest and taking several shaky breaths. “I was not there. That is not my hand print, I swear to God. This is crazy. This is crazy. I swear to God, this is crazy.”
And then he paused and looked the detective right in the eye, holding his gaze for several seconds.
“Take my hand print again?” he demanded.
“We’re going to,” Fulton assured him.
But before he honored Derris’ request, Fulton baited him. He moved slowly, offering empathy. He asked about April, he brought Derris a bottle of water, he talked about religion. And then, suddenly, Fulton turned cold.
“I’d be pissed off if someone was accusing me of my brother’s murder,” the detective said.
“Oh I am,” Derris answered evenly. “I don’t like to show my emotions a lot.”
“You know what would be a good a idea since I’ve never seen any emotion out of you – since the day I loaded your brother into a van to go to the morgue I’ve not seen a stick of emotion out of you – you might want to think about start showing some. OK, because nobody can understand how it is you sauntered off to school and get slapped on the back, treated like a hero while your brother’s getting buried.”
“I didn’t go to school …” Derris protested.
“You went to school.”
“I went to school, but I didn’t go to school to learn. I went to school to be with my friends.”
“To hang out.”
“Look at me. Look at me. It’s about me.”
“Not at all. This is not happening.”
“That’s your print and that’s your brother’s blood. That is happening. Wrap your head around that.”
And then Fulton was gone, door slamming behind him.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Derris cried, sitting alone in the interrogation room. “Somebody killed my brother; they’re trying to blame it on me. This is not happening. Something’s mixed up here. Something’s mixed up here. I know it is.”
For nearly 10 minutes, while Fulton consulted with Young and arranged for Derris’ prints to be taken, Derris’ composure crumbled while police video rolled and captured it all. His words, the ones he spoke aloud to himself, got desperate. He assured himself that the accusation was a dream. He begged a higher power for help in protecting his family. He sobbed.
“I wish my brother was still here.”
When Fulton finally returned, he led Derris down the hall where officers rolled the teenagers prints and swabbed the inside of his cheek for DNA. Derris was sure the tests would exonerate him.
But just as it had when fingerprint experts examined it the first time and the second time, on the third look, Derris’ palm print and the print left at the crime scene matched again.
Fulton arrested Derris and charged him with the unthinkable – the murder of his identical twin brother, Dennis Lekeith Lewis.
On January 24, 2008, the same day the Lewis family laid Little Dennis in the ground, Franklin County Juvenile Judge Dana Preisse attended a fundraiser at the Columbus Club.
The club is a members-only social organization founded in 1886 and housed in a stately brick building on a coveted block of East Broad Street. People call its lush green grounds “the most expensive front yard in Central Ohio” and, over the years, it’s lived up to that reputation. Military heroes dined there; movie stars and music moguls stayed there. Presidents Warren G. Harding and William Howard Taft were once members there. It isn’t the kind of place where visitors talk openly, with rapt interest and compassion, about a poor, black teenager from Linden. But that’s exactly what everyone was talking about on January 24.
Preisse, in particular, was sick about it. She’d seen too many young men on a path to poverty and incarceration make a stop in her courtroom. To lose one who was headed in the opposite direction felt more than unfair; it felt like a blow to the juvenile division’s morale. And she’d presided over enough cases to know that when a juvenile dies violently, it’s often at the hands of another juvenile. If that held true this time, one of the five judges in her division was going to catch this case. She shared her fears over wine and whispers.
Preisse was right. Just three weeks after that fundraiser, police arrested Derris for Dennis’ murder.
Preisse silently begging the universe for a favor: Please let this go to somebody else. She couldn’t imagine herself – the mother of an 8-year-old boy, the supervisor of an identical twin – listening to the details of Dennis’ murder and maintaining her composure while the cameras of an obsessed local media rolled. She wondered how she could get through that without crying.
But when the assignments were handed down, she realized she’d have to find a way. She’d caught Derris’ bindover hearing.
Bindover hearings are mostly a formality in Ohio. State law dictates that if a juvenile older than 16 commits a category one or two offense – murder, manslaughter, rape, aggravated arson, aggravated robbery or aggravated burglary – and the judge finds probable cause to proceed, the case must be relinquished to adult court. The standard for probable cause is low, more than a mere suspicion but not necessarily beyond a reasonable doubt. In her 16 years on the juvenile bench, Preisse had only one case where she didn’t find probable cause.
On Wednesday, May 7, 2008, Derris arrived in Judge Preisse’s courtroom for his hearing. She’d signed an order allowing him to wear civilian clothing, so Derris wore a white shirt and a black tie, both a little too big, that Preisse thought made him look more like an intern than a defendant. His mother sat at the defense table with him.
Preisse let her gaze linger on the scene for a moment and was startled when she caught Derris gazing back at her, looking her right in the eye, his chin lifted in determination or defiance. Juveniles never did that. They stared at the table or the door or at an indeterminate spot in space, anywhere but up at her bench. She wondered if it said something about Derris’ character or his guilt.
“All right,” Preisse said once the lawyers stated their names for the record. “Would you like to make any opening statements?”
Doug Stead spoke for the prosecution. He was brief: The police had found Derris’ bloody palm print on a bedroom wall; a print that placed him in his mother’s house at the time of his brother’s murder. “There is no other explanation,” he said.
Defense attorney Libby Hall waived her statement. What could she say? The prosecution was right. She had no other explanation.
After a few standard stipulations, the prosecution called April Lewis to the stand. Stead loped toward her. They were odd nemeses: April, the small, meek, sympathetic mother, made even smaller and meeker and more sympathetic by her grief, taking on the weathered prosecutor with the sharp tongue. Stead eyed April for just a moment. Though it was spring, she drew an animal print coat tight across her body. Even before April was asked to speak, she leaned away from the microphone, as though she feared it. It would have been easy, maybe even advised, to begin slowly, to treat her gently, but this was a murder case and gentle wasn’t Stead’s style.
He wanted to quickly establish that Derris hadn’t been at his mother’s house before the murder, so for his bloody palm print to be on the wall, he must have been one of the masked intruders who burst in later. It was supposed to be quick and clean and void of emotion, but April’s pain seeped into her testimony when Stead asked her to describe the moment after the gunshot. Those in the courtroom, mostly Lewis family supporters and local reporters, leaned in.
“I went and looked for him and I felt his leg, it was warm, but then wasn’t nothing, he wasn’t saying anything,” April explained. “And I said, ‘Little Dennis get up, get up, get up, get up, you ain’t dead. Oh, Lord, help me. Please help me.’ To see my child dead on the floor … getting killed and you can’t help him. I wish I could help, but I couldn’t but pray, just keep praying something going to come through this. God, he saved my life with his angels …”
“Amen,” someone called from the crowd.
“ … because they didn’t shoot me. And I said, ‘Why didn’t they shoot me?’ They killed my son; they shot him. Why didn’t they shoot me? Do you have an answer for that?”
April was sobbing now, and Stead didn’t have an answer for her question. No one did.
By the time April climbed down from the stand and returned to her seat at the defense table, Stead had accomplished his goal. She confirmed that Derris hadn’t been at the house. Hall attempted to chip some of the gleaming finish off Stead’s argument. A mother would know if her own son came into her home, even if he wore a mask, Hall argued. A mother would have sensed him, smelled him. But it had done little good. Even Derris knew it. The sound of his whimpering filled the courtroom.
April took her seat next to him and tapped her hand lightly and rhythmically on his forearm. “It’s going to be all right after awhile,” she promised in a tiny voice. “It’s going to be all right because you didn’t do anything.”
Derris lifted his eyes briefly to glance at his mother, and then past her at the cameras. Dozens of them pointed right at Derris. He quickly lowered his eyes and choked back another sob. He knew that in a few hours, his face was going to be all over the local news and the entire city would believe he’d done this; that he’d killed his brother.
Behind her desk, Preisse dug her fingernails into her palms. Like Derris, she was trying to fight back tears. She couldn’t shake the nagging feeling of doubt growing in her stomach. In such violent cases, there was usually a pattern, a map that showed the trajectory of a life hurtling toward crime. But she couldn’t find a pattern in the Lewis case. As far as anyone could determine – even the prosecution – Dennis and Derris were good boys, best friends. There were no problems at school, no criminal records, no secret drug habits. All the prosecution had was a single piece of physical evidence that put Derris at the scene of the crime. But just before latent print examiner Mark Bryant left the stand, an idea crashed over Preisse. What if something was wrong with that print? What if that print didn’t put Derris at the scene of the crime? What if the blood was old and left at another time? That would explain everything. She asked Bryant to show her the photograph of Derris’ palm print, which had been labeled state’s evidence C39. She studied the print for a moment.
“Do you determine the age of the blood?” she asked.
“No ma’am,” Bryant answered.
Stead perked. “I’m sorry, what was that question?” he asked.
Preisse repeated herself, slowly. She wanted doubt to sink into Stead’s mind: If no one had determined the age of the blood, maybe it hadn’t been left on the night of the murder. Maybe it had been left earlier. She thought her question might just prompt the prosecution to consider further testing of the evidence. And if it didn’t, at least Preisse now had her own doubts on the court record.
But during his closing argument, it became apparent that Stead had already dismissed Preisse’s idea. “Taken off the wall in the bedroom where the assault began was a bloody palm print. The undisputed evidence in this case is that bloody palm print belongs to the defendant, Derris Lewis. There is no other explanation to explain that bloody palm print on the wall in the bedroom where these brutalities were exhibited against Mr. Dennis Lewis other than the fact that he participated in the home invasion and the murder of his brother.”
When Stead finished, Judge Preisse nodded once and then turned her head to the defense table, “Ms. Hall.”
“Thank you, Your Honor,” Hall began. “On this Mr. Stead and I can agree: this is a tragedy. But it’s even more of a tragedy knowing that an innocent young man is here facing his whole life because of mistakes that were made.”
But Hall, for all of her eloquence, could not supply facts. She could not say exactly what those mistakes were or who had made them and, in the end, that ambiguity forced Preisse to make the decision she had hoped from the beginning she would not have to make.
It took her 30 minutes. Despite her misgivings about the case, the evidence was solid. Keeping it in juvenile court, no matter how badly she wanted to, would have disregarded her oath to uphold justice in the state of Ohio. She knew she had to send the case to adult court. And, once the court reconvened, she did just that.
Preisse set bond at $50,000.
The Lewis family used Dennis’ life insurance money and posted the required $5,000 that afternoon.
The next day, a grand jury indicted Derris on charges of aggravated murder. Bond was raised to $800,000 and Derris was remanded to the county jail, where he would sit for 18 months.
Diane lay on her bed, the gun she purchased after her brother’s murder tucked beneath the mattress, and allowed the questions to tumble wildly in her head.
Is Derris ever going to get out of jail?
What if his lawyer can’t convince a jury he didn’t do this?
What if he did?
As quickly as that last thought crept into her head, Diane batted it away. You’re exhausted and the media and the police have you confused, she told herself. Derris would never hurt his brother.
Next to Derris, the direct aftermath of Dennis’ murder weighed heaviest on Diane. Not only was she the one to discover her dying brother in the hallway of her mother’s house, but she was forced into the role of family matriarch while April reeled. It was not a role she coveted. She was just days away from delivering her fourth child and she yearned to crawl into bed, block out the world with a shield made of blankets and wallow in memories of Dennis. Sometimes, when she needed to escape from the house, she drove to the cemetery and spent long hours whispering her thoughts and fears to Dennis’ grave. One night, she stayed so long that a groundskeeper had to ask her to leave so that he could lock the gates.
When her baby finally arrived on February 21, Diane named her Dennisa. But staring into the eyes of this innocent creature, her fears for her family’s safety reached new, urgent heights. On March 1, she broke her lease and moved the entire family, including April, from Loretta Avenue to a townhouse in Williamsburg Square, a complex just outside of the I-270 beltway that looped the city.
We’ll be safer here, she thought. We can move on.
But no matter how far she moved her family from Loretta Avenue, Diane couldn’t escape the memories of her brothers. While Dennis and Derris shared physical traits,Dennis and Diane shared personality traits. Both were loud and outspoken; quick to use sharp tongues and closed fists. They laughed at the same jokes, talked late into the night about their tumultuous love lives. “You’re my twin, too,” Diane would tell him, “only 13 years apart.” Her relationship with Derris always required more effort. Derris was quieter and more serious than his siblings, and Diane felt he was never fully present in her midst; like he left a piece of himself somewhere else for safekeeping. It was a familial Catch 22: Diane favored Dennis because she thought Derris didn’t trust her and Derris sometimes resented Diane because she so obviously preferred the company of his twin.
Maybe to squash the guilt she felt, maybe because no one else seemed capable of saving Derris, maybe because she made a promise to her siblings when they were small to “never leave you lonely,” by the end of that summer, Diane began to methodically plan her brother’s rescue.
She didn’t trust Derris’ court-appointed lawyer, Kevin Mulrane, though he was considered one of the best public defenders in the city. He’d successfully represented a child rapist who suffocated a 17-month-old boy and a man who killed his own 3-month-old son by repeatedly slamming the infant’s head against pavement. Though the men were convicted, Mulrane had saved them not only from the death penalty, but also from life without parole. In the public defender’s office, they were considered victories. Thanks to those and dozens of other cases, Mulrane was accustomed to defending the indefensible, so it wasn’t beyond comprehension to him that a boy could kill his own twin. In fact, he appeared to believe Derris was guilty, urging his client to take a plea deal.
Derris was aghast. As far as he was concerned, the worst thing he’d ever done was allow a friend to copy his homework. He certainly wasn’t going to plead guilty to murdering his own twin. He begged Diane to find another attorney.
So Diane opened the Yellow Pages to lawyers and started with A. She called nearly 100 of them on that first day, searching for someone willing to represent Derris, but it left her disheartened and frustrated. Most wanted $25,000 to even consider the case.
It was days before she reached the letter N and spoke with a lawyer named Adam Nemann. He said that had just finished trying a federal case in Zanesville, Ohio, and he did the work pro bono.
“Pro bono?” Diane asked. She wasn’t sure what it meant.
“Without charge,” Nemann replied.
Diane felt her heart quiver in her chest. Could this be the lawyer to take Derris’ case? The longer they spoke, the more convinced she became. Nemann didn’t seem intimidated by the evidence or intricacies of the case. He spoke in a strong, almost cocky, tone that inspired confidence. Plus, he was accomplished. Though only a few years older than Diane, he was already a partner in a law firm.
And though she didn’t know that Nemann had once spent a year as a small-town prosecutor, arranging lax plea deals for down-on-their-luck defendants, she sensed a warm heart behind his bold words.
As far as Diane was concerned, Nemann had all the marks of a person with the swagger, sway and sympathy to take on a case as complicated as her brother’s. His firm, Scott and Nemann Co., couldn’t afford to take Derris’ case pro bono, but Nemann told Diane if Derris made a formal request to change counsel, he’d be happy to do the work as a public defender.
Privately, though, Nemann doubted it would happen. He knew defendants, particularly those accused of murder, weren’t typically permitted to choose their own lawyers. Instead, judges chose from a pool of proven and experienced attorneys, who were unlikely to make silly gaffes or offer suspect counsel that invited appeals. Despite his accomplishments, Nemann had only been practicing for five years, and he knew all about public defender Kevin Mulrane’s stellar reputation; he’d even worked alongside him for a short time. Though he couldn’t imagine what issue this kid could have with Mulrane’s representation, for the first of what would be many times, Nemann trusted Derris’ instincts. He walked Diane through the process of requesting new counsel. Later that evening, when Derris called from county, Diane did the same with him.
It wasn’t going to be a simple endeavor. Derris could not appeal to the judge on his own, through a letter or phone call. He needed Mulrane to schedule a courtroom appearance, where Derris would have to stand and outline his reasons for requesting new counsel, in front of his current counsel. The thought was intimidating, but Derris desperately wanted a lawyer to listen to his claims of innocence, and Diane believed that Nemann would.
On September 10, he finally got the courage to tell Mulrane of his plans. Mulrane seemed shocked that Derris wanted to fire him, and he didn’t think a judge would allow it.
“You’re going to have to fight to get someone else,” he warned his client. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m the best around.”
Derris didn’t see it that way. He was tired of talking about plea bargains. He was innocent and he wanted his lawyer to treat him that way. If Mulrane wasn’t willing to do that, Derris wasn’t willing to trust Mulrane with his life. So, just a few weeks after he first talked about the idea with Diane, Derris went before Judge Guy L. Reece, who would eventually preside over the trial, and asked to fire his public defender.
It wasn’t just unusual for an accused murderer to make such a request; it was downright bold, particularly given Derris’ age. But then, Judge Reece thought, this was an unusual case that called for some leniency. He always felt capital defendants deserved every chance, every avenue, to spare their own lives. He was inclined to offer Derris the same opportunity, especially since the teenager had the pluck to ask.
“Okay,” he said. “Choose any lawyer you want.”
Derris wanted Adam Nemann from Scott and Nemann.
“You got him,” Reece said.
Nemann was waiting outside when Mulrane exited Judge Reece’s courtroom. “Good luck,” he told Nemann. “The kid’s guilty and the family’s in denial.”
Realizing that he had a lot to learn about his latest case, Nemann immediately locked himself in a conference room at the offices of Scott and Nemann and began to pore over the stacks of paperwork before him. The case was more complicated than he thought.
While the media had been acting as though a guilty verdict was inevitable, the evidence was less conclusive. Derris’ friends and family were adamant that he was not involved in his brother’s murder and the timeline appeared to support their claims. As far as Nemann could tell, Derris didn’t have time to kill Dennis, flee the area, clean himself up after what appeared to be a violent encounter and return to the scene. But there was still the matter of the bloody palm print. Nemann had no plausible explanation for its existence and, as of yet, no good way to discredit the prosecution’s hypothesis. He hoped Judge Reece would allow him ample time to investigate before he scheduled the trial.
For days, as legal associate Shannon Leis walked past the conference room and glanced at Nemann hunched over the long table, papers scattered haphazardly across its top, she wrestled with the urge to knock. Like Nemann, she’d been following the Derris Lewis case in the news. She was appalled by the coldness of the crime – brother on brother – and she was dying to know what the evidence foretold.
When she could no longer contain her curiosity, she stepped inside and made Nemann an offer: “Hey, if you need any anything, I’d be happy to help you.”
The offer wasn’t just a way to mollify her interest, and it wasn’t completely altruistic either. Though Leis had only been practicing law for a month, she was wise enough to recognize that controversial, high-profile cases like the State v. Lewis didn’t come along more than once or twice in a career. She wanted in.
Nemann considered his new colleague for a moment. She was slim and tall and could appear stern at first glance, but she smiled easily and, though he hadn’t worked with her yet, he’d heard she was warm and nurturing with clients. She’d already sat in on one homicide case with partner Joe Scott and she’d been a top student at Capital University Law School, where she’d graduated magna cum laude and edited the law review. And, frankly, he needed the help.
He invited her on board.
When Nemann and Leis met Derris at the Franklin County Jail for the first time in September 2008, neither one of them anticipated a life-altering experience. Defense attorneys learn early in their careers to maintain low expectations, and to accept that their clients may very well be guilty of their crimes. It doesn’t change the fervor with which they defend them, but it makes it a lot easier to weather stormy first encounters and unfavorable verdicts. “Legally, attorneys join their clients as part of a defense team,” Nemann liked to say. “Morally, guilty clients stand alone.”
But despite all that Nemann had already done to secure the case, he still wasn’t certain he could convince a jury of reasonable doubt. Since Derris’ arrest in February, the media continued to tout a good twin vs. bad twin storyline that most of the city – including Leis – accepted as fact. Dennis, they reported, was an ideal kid; an honors student at Columbus’ East High School who doted on his disabled mother and played the sousaphone in the high school marching band so loud he sounded like four people. “Sonic Bomb,” they called him. His smiling photograph repeatedly graced the front page of the Columbus Dispatch.
Derris, the new reports countered, was jealous of his effervescent twin. He broke into his own mother’s home late at night, purportedly to steal a couple hundred dollars from his brother’s bedroom, and allowed one of his accomplices to shoot Dennis in the chest.
The truth, as it usually is, was more complicated, and it got even more complex when guards led Derris into the meeting room at the jail. Nemann and Leis immediately realized that Derris didn’t look like the thick-necked, dead-eyed teenager in the mug shot they’d seen. He looked young and small and terrified. Tears glistened in his brown, doe eyes. Nemann reached out to shake Derris’ hand and was surprised by his meekness.
The attorneys soon learned that, like his brother, Derris was an honors student. He, too, took care of his disabled mother and led the East Marching Band as its head drum major. He was also unfailingly polite, calling the attorneys Mr. Nemann and Ms. Leis.
During that initial meeting Derris repeatedly insisted, “I didn’t do this.”
Little more than an hour later, when they walked out of the jail, Nemann and Leis looked at each other. They were thinking the same thing: Something had to be wrong with this case. There was no way this soft-spoken kid launched a violent attack on his own brother.
Leis felt guilty. She had believed the media portrayals of an angry, jealous and remorseless teenager. But Derris wasn’t any of those things.
“Frankly, in a fight, I could see him turning and running,” Nemann said. “I just (can’t) picture this kid, with his character and his demeanor and his personality, having anything to do with this crime.”
For Nemann and Leis, the thought that Derris was innocent and sitting in the county jail was now more believable and sickening than the thought that he was guilty and had killed his own brother. They quickly realized that the cost of losing this battle could be a life spent in prison, and they felt terrible enough about leaving Derris to fend for himself at the county jail for another night.
Their desire to win this case – already high among proud, young defense attorneys – had just multiplied exponentially.
While Nemann and Leis left the jail shaken, Derris returned to his tank with renewed optimism. Those lawyers had listened – really listened – to his story. They may have been young, but they looked so serious, Leis with her close-cropped black hair and Nemann with his clean-shaven face. They looked like real lawyers.
They looked like the kind of people who could get him out.
County jails are notoriously harsh places. Unlike the state and federal prison systems, where the guilty are housed according to the nature of their offenses, jails throw everyone into one large, dirty pot: thieves, drug dealers, murderers, rapists, the guilty and the innocent. The charges filed against them are typically fresh, their trials are looming, and the stakes are high. Surviving there is an ugly dance, with the imprisoned constantly straining to keep balance in the chaos.
Leis hated that Derris was stuck in one. He seemed too young, too soft, for such a place. Only a few months earlier he’d been a high school senior worrying about his upcoming Spanish test.
While Nemann had taken on much of the research and paperwork involved in defending Derris, Leis had elected to play mediator between the defense team and the family. It was a difficult job, explaining the slow wheels of the often capricious justice system to those who have never experienced it. The task dictated that she visit Derris at least once a week at the county jail. Sitting opposite him at a meeting room table and updating him on Nemann’s research, her emotions vacillated between anger, wanting to yank him out of the jail, past the prison guards and into fresh air, and sorrow, wanting to hold him close and protect him from this ugly world he’d been thrust into.
This inclination, this motherly instinct to protect, surprised no one who knew Leis well. She’d always had a soft spot for the vulnerable. In high school, when her best friend’s boyfriend acted badly, it was Leis who called to scream at him. In college, when she heard a litter of Chihuahuas had been rescued from a puppy mill, she immediately tracked them down and adopted two of them. “You can’t be a therapist,” her mother advised her when she announced her intention to study psychology as an undergraduate at Ohio State University. “People have to do things on their own. You’ll be calling their families up for them.”
Leis was a fixer, and she wanted to fix this situation for Derris. The feeling was only intensified by lingering pangs of guilt. That Leis had once believed the media’s depiction of Derris as a cold and calculating killer continued to haunt her because, if she had believed it, she knew others had, too.
“They didn’t have any of the details of Derris being every bit as good of a student as his brother was, that he was working and taking care of his mother. All of that information was completely left out of the media reports, so I walked into the first interview with him assuming that he probably did it,” she says. “It was quite an awakening.”
She wanted others to have that same awakening to her client, to see him as she did – as good person railroaded by an imperfect justice system. But as the March trial date crawled closer, the chances of her being able to accomplish that looked bleak.
“We are going to get you out,” Leis promised Derris at the end of each of their meetings.
For her, failure was no longer an option.
Like his co-counsel, lead counsel Adam Nemann, had developed a true affection for Derris, and he honestly believed in his innocence. But proving that innocence wasn’t going to be easy. The physical evidence Prosecutor Doug Stead planned to present at trial – the bloody palm print – was extremely damning, and everyone knew it, particularly Stead.
Just one week after Judge Guy Reece appointed him Derris’ new public defender, Nemann ran into the Franklin County assistant prosecutor at the Buffalo Wild Wings in Columbus’ Brewery District. Nemann knew Stead mostly by reputation. He had long been considered one of the top three prosecutors in the state of Ohio, and an unusual talent in the halls of the Franklin County Courthouse. Judges respected him, juries liked him and defense attorneys feared him. Nemann had seen him rail at witnesses, contorting his face into exaggerated smirks and pacing endlessly between the defense table and the stand. When witnesses said something he didn’t like or expect, he often rolled his eyes or slapped a palm against the nearest solid surface. And he didn’t appear above screaming at them or employing sarcasm. So Nemann wasn’t particularly surprised that Stead continued the theatrics outside of the courthouse.
That night, after spotting Nemann in the crowd of happy hour patrons, Stead swaggered toward him, beer in his hand and grin on his face.
“Are you actually thinking about trying this case?” he asked.
Both men stand well over six feet tall, but Nemann felt dwarfed in the older man’s presence. He straightened his back and, though he was still smarting from the disdain in Stead’s tone, he tried to sound surer of the case than he felt.
“Of course we are,” Nemann said. “And we think we’re going to win.”
The truth was, he hadn’t even gotten through discovery evidence yet.
Stead leaned in toward the younger lawyer. Stead remembers telling Nemann that if the defense could offer an explanation for the bloody palm print, the prosecution’s case would disappear. Nemann remembers Stead offering the first and only plea deal of the case: If Derris pleads guilty, I’ll drop the request for life without parole.
For a more experienced lawyer, one hardened by years of representing guilty clients and frustrated with the fickle hand of justice, an offer from Stead might have been tempting. Judge Reece was known for his relatively lax sentences. If Derris pleaded guilty, it was likely he would receive no more than 23 years to life – a gift for a man charged with aggravated murder who had allegedly left a bloody print at the scene. But Nemann was still young enough to be optimistic, to believe that his job could right the world’s wrongs and change lives.
Whatever Stead said that night, the men agree on this: It was the first move in what would be a long chess match between two lawyers who each believed they knew the absolute truth of what happened to Dennis Lewis that January night on Loretta Avenue.
In an attempt to poke holes in Stead’s seemingly airtight case against Derris, Nemann hired a private investigator to retrace the events of the January 18, 2008 and to re-interview witnesses. That investigator, Theresa Edwards, filled two cardboard totes with information she’d gathered about the case. It was a tireless account of the Columbus Police Department’s investigation, and it gave Nemann hope that he could inject reasonable doubt into the prosecution’s theory.
The crime scene at 1161 Loretta Avenue, according to photographs and to detectives’ recollections, had been a grisly sight. Red stains pooled on the floors and clung to the walls. So much blood streaked Dennis’ body that first responders couldn’t tell if he’d been shot in his head or his chest. The intruders knocked lamps from tables, ripped doors from their hinges and emptied cupboards of their contents.
Yet, when investigators seized and searched Derris’ car – the old, gray Mercury he and Dennis used to drive to school, to work and to band practice – they found no evidence of blood. When he arrived at the scene on the night of the murder, he had no visible blood on his clothes or bruises on his body – no signs of a violent encounter with a brother who was exactly his size and, according to the family, a more willing combatant.
In fact, it had become a running joke that if Dennis and Derris were ever to get into a fight, Derris would “get his ass kicked.”
There was also the question of whether he’d had the opportunity to commit the crime. Derris arrived at his mother’s house shortly after police on January 18, so it seemed unlikely he would have had enough time to drive to the house he shared with girlfriend Kristian on Wager Street, southeast of the city, wash away evidence, and then drive back to his mother’s house on Loretta Avenue, north of the city. The homes were at least 10 minutes apart, and that’s if the driver was flying.
And then there were Derris’ housemates and alibi witnesses. Yes, one of those witnesses was his longtime girlfriend, but the others – Kristian’s sister, Melisa Mora, and Melisa’s boyfriend, Brent Black – had no obvious reason or incentive to lie.
Two former homicide detectives Nemann hired to review the case also offered a troubling assessment of the police work done at the scene. In crime scene photographs, it appeared investigators hadn’t dumped dresser drawers or stripped the bed in Dennis’ room – both common practices for homicides. If they’d failed to perform these simple tasks, what else had they failed to do?
Nemann, Leis and their hired investigators all felt that at least two other scenarios the police had investigated, and subsequently dismissed, made more sense than the case they’d built around Derris. The first involved Robert Shepherd Holmes, the teenager who was arrested for violating city curfew after Dennis’ death.
Though ballistics testing was inconclusive, the coincidences were too much for Nemann and Leis. Not only had Holmes been carrying a .38 – the same type of gun used to kill Dennis – at the time of his arrest, but he also wore clothes – designer jeans and a pair of red Jordans – that friends said he’d stolen from an area house.
The other scenario was just as compelling, and involved another drug dealer with even closer ties to the Lewis family – cousin Joey Westbrook. He had been arrested in New Boston, Ohio, just days before Dennis’ murder. In its police roundup, The Portsmouth Daily Times identified Westbrook’s last known address as 1161 Loretta Avenue in Columbus. Anyone loosely familiar with Westbrook and his occupation could have made the plausible leap: he was locked up and his drugs and money weren’t with him; they might just be stashed on Loretta. It would explain why the intruders had demanded money from April.
Though the investigators had offered Nemann valuable information about the case, their work shed little light on the prosecution’s key piece of evidence – the bloody palm print. And Nemann knew that physical evidence was infinitely more powerful than circumstantial evidence in swaying a jury.
He put the burden of physical evidence on Leis’ shoulders.
“You’ve got to find a problem with that print,” Nemann told her.
It was a daunting task. So far, every document related to the palm print appeared to be indisputable. The city’s print expert, Mark Bryant, confirmed the lines, ridges, loops and bifurcations of the latent print – the one found at the crime scene – matched Derris’ rolled print in 16 places, or points. According to Columbus Crime Lab procedures, that was double the points needed for a print match.
Leis accepted that the palm print investigators found on the wall of Dennis’ bedroom indisputably belonged to Derris. While identical twins share DNA, their prints are distinct, and several experts – including two hired by the defense – had matched that print on the drywall to the print police took at the station on the day of Derris’ arrest.
One of those experts offered a thin sliver of hope, though. His name was Ivan Futrell and he’d spent 37 years working in the FBI laboratory’s latent fingerprint section. Latent prints, in forensic science terms, are accidental impressions left at crime scenes. They can be made in almost any substance and made visible using a number of methods, including dusting and amido black. Because latent prints are left by chance, they are often imperfect and difficult to identify.
Futrell didn’t have that problem with Derris’ print. When he studied the enlarged photograph detectives had taken of Derris’ palm print, he found a relatively undistorted impression, and he felt certain Derris left it.
But Leis was desperate for another explanation.
“I’m sure you hear this all the time,” she said during a conference call with Futrell and Nemann, “but I really, really know my client is innocent, so how do I explain this?”
Futrell pondered Leis’ question for a moment.
“What proof do you have that this is in blood?” he asked. Nemann and Leis glanced at each other over the conference room telephone, eyebrows raised.
“Well, they told us it was,” Nemann said, sheepishly.
Futrell explained that because amido black is designed to bring out latent prints, it only acts as a presumptive test for blood, not a conclusive one. The chemicals in amido black also react with many proteins that are not in blood, including those in sweat, lotion, hair gel, semen and even cooking grease. It was possible, he told them, that Derris’ print was made at another time, in another substance.
Finally, Leis thought, some hope.
Two weeks before Derris’ trial was to begin, the prosecution sent over a disc containing the remaining images of the crime scene. On it was the photograph Nemann and Leis had been waiting for. It showed the entire chunk of drywall in Dennis’ bedroom that crime scene investigators had cut out and doused in amido black. Somewhere in that image was Derris’ supposed bloody palm print. The problem was figuring out where.
Those who are familiar with amido black can imagine the challenge. The process of explicating fingerprints with this method is often a messy one. It requires crime scene investigators to spray or pour a runny, dark blue liquid over the surface they’re investigating. The chemicals in the liquid react with proteins on the surface, turning those proteins nearly black and allowing investigators to view detail previously invisible to the naked eye, such as the ridge of a palm print.
When done properly, the test is considered reliable. But the fingerprint and crime scene experts consulted by the defense doubted Columbus police had completed the final step in the process. It appeared to them that investigators had failed to wash the wall down with distilled water, a step that rinses away excess blue liquid and allows marks made in protein to stand out clearly.
The drywall from Dennis’ bedroom was still covered with dark blue drips and stains and looked more like a toddler’s first art project than the key piece of evidence in a murder investigation. It was this end result that Columbus investigators had photographed and sent to the defense.
Leis printed the image and studied it endlessly hoping that, if she stared at it long enough, Derris’ print would appear in the mess, like one of those optical illusion paintings at the mall. She could have called up Doug Stead and asked if he could tell her where to locate the palm print in the photograph. But she had been practicing law for just a month and she was unwilling to show any sign of weakness, especially to an attorney as seasoned and savvy as Stead. He’d already taken to taunting her in the courthouse. “Can’t wait to see what you guys are gonna do with that physical evidence,” he’d sing. “I’ve got a bloody palm print. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
After a solid week of examining the drywall photograph and failing to find anything, she dug a print card out of the evidence box, the one that clearly showed Derris’ right palm in ink. She committed its ridges and dots and braches to memory, then searched for that same pattern in the prosecution’s photograph, twisting and turning Derris’ print card over the photograph like a puzzle piece, trying to find the correct angle, asking colleagues and friends to take a look, too. No one could find the place where her client had left his damning mark.
Other lawyers might have given up at this point, accepting that the bloody print would have to be explained away somehow in court, but Leis refused to let it go.
Later that week, after another exhausting and futile day of searching for Derris’ print in the crime scene photograph, she tried to relax, watching a PBS documentary on television and snuggling with her Chihuahuas, Feliz and Feroz. She set her laptop on the coffee table by her feet, the crime scene image open on the screen. During a commercial break, she glanced down and saw something odd. In an area just above the spot where investigators found blood, there were the loops, lines and ridges of a fingerprint. She pushed her dogs out of her lap and leaned forward for a closer look. Part of the print was obscured by a Post-It note marking the photograph as No. 19, but she was sure that peaking out from behind the Post-It was that elusive print. She compared it to Derris’ print card and then to the enlarged image of the palm print that investigators had taken. They all matched.
This is it! she thought. Not only was this the print she’d been searching for, but it also appeared that Ivan Futrell had been right. Derris’ print wasn’t made in blood. The print didn’t appear in crime scene photographs taken before the drywall was cut out and carted away and doused with amido black. It had appeared only when drops of the liquid passed through and illuminated it.
The discovery, if the defense could prove it, debunked the prosecution’s entire theory – that if Derris left a print in blood, he must have been at the crime scene. If this print wasn’t in blood, it could have been left at any time, and given that Derris used to share that bedroom with his brother, that seemed a likely theory.
Leis grabbed her cell phone and texted Nemann:
“That print is toast!”
Nemann received Leis’ text moments after she sent it, but he didn’t share her enthusiasm. He had spent so much time trying to figure out a way to explain how Derris’ bloody print got on the wall that he couldn’t imagine now having to find a way to explain that the print wasn’t made in blood after all.
He briefly considered asking Judge Reece for a continuance so he could better grasp the new theory Leis was pushing, but quickly dismissed the idea. It was unlikely the court would reschedule within the year. Clearing the dockets for the two weeks it would take to try the State v. Lewis was not an easy task by itself, but taking the media into consideration added another hurdle. Judge Reece had agreed to allow Court TV to film the entire trial.
Nemann also worried about his witnesses. The neighborhood folks who had grudgingly agreed to testify weren’t exactly reliable types. Derell Tanner – who was staying on Loretta Avenue and claimed to have seen three masked men running from the Lewis house on the night of the murder – was barely coherent during most of their pretrial interview. Brent Black, who heard Derris’ phone ring from Kristian’s bedroom that night, claimed a black cat was stalking him and causing him bad luck. And Robert Shepherd Holmes was a young drug dealer with a growing list of enemies. It was conceivable one or all of them would be arrested, or killed or simply change their minds by the time another trial rolled around. Besides, Nemann’s expert witnesses had already cleared their schedules. And he didn’t want Derris to spend any more time locked in that county jail.
No, they would have to try this case in March.
So when Leis approached him with two crime scene photographs, the print card and a palpable enthusiasm, he could barely bring himself to glance at the evidence. He was exhausted. He had fully dedicated himself to this case, closing his practice to all clients but Derris and frequently defending the teenager to skeptical friends and colleagues. He felt that to make it worth it, to win, they had to focus on what they knew, not what they merely suspected.
“Enough with the print,” he told Leis, his usually even voice turning to a growl.
For a moment, Leis considered dropping it. Nemann had more experience than she did. He was surefooted and commanding in the office, deftly steering the case through all its obstacles and turbulence. And, quite honestly, his cool self-assurance intimidated her. But she was too convinced, too obsessed, to stop her hounding. She drove to the nearest Kinko’s and printed color copies of the crime scene photographs onto transparencies. Then she returned to the office where she cornered her colleague in the hallway. Nemann sighed and tried to step past her, but she grabbed his arm and shoved the transparencies into his face.
“You have to look at this,” she ordered him.
Later that day, Leis paid an unexpected visit to Derris at the county jail. When he arrived in the meeting room she slid the two color transparencies across the table. One showed the drywall in his brother’s bedroom sprayed with amido black; one showed the drywall before testing. Leis dropped the former over the latter, lined the images up carefully and pointed to his print. Derris stared at them. His amido-darkened palm print was clearly above the red smear investigators had discovered on the day of the murder. His print was not made in blood.
“This is it!” Leis cried, practically shrieking with excitement now. “This is it! We broke their whole case!”
Derris looked at the transparencies again and then up at Leis. He wanted to believe her, but this seemed too good, too simple, to be true. Police said his print was in blood, but it wasn’t? How could they have made such an incredible mistake? And could Nemann and Leis prove it? If this was the evidence that was to set him free, to prove to the world that he hadn’t killed his brother, he wanted to understand everything.
“Show me again,” he told her.
On the first day of The State v. Derris Lewis, March 9, 2009, the Lewis family filed into Judge Guy Reece’s tiny courtroom and filled every seat behind the defense table. They carried lunch boxes full of snacks and greeted each other with grins and embraces. Doug Stead watched them, unnerved. The scene looked more like a family reunion than a murder trial.
April’s favorite cousin, Kim Carter, caught Stead staring at them. He rose abruptly from his chair and offered a tight smile.
“Usually when I’m prosecuting a case, the victim’s family is over here,” Stead explained, motioning to the bench behind his desk, “but I fully understand what’s happening in this case and if you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them.”
Carter gave Stead a long, withering look, nodded once and thanked him for his offer. Then she quickly turned away.
Clearly, the prosecution did not have the family’s support. But as the trial began, Stead made it obvious that he planned to operate without it. He was there to uphold the law, to deliver justice, no matter how unwelcome.
Much like they had at the bindover hearing, Stead and his co-counsel Tim Mitchell moved methodically through direct examinations, staking their case on the so-called bloody palm print found in Dennis’ room and openly playing on the stereotypes the Lewis twins had always fought against. They painted Derris as an angry teenager who succumbed to the neighborhood, and the circumstances, in which he lived. Making it on his own had depleted Derris’ savings, they posited, and the quickest way to rectify that was to steal from his brother.
The prosecution’s only hiccup came just after lunch on the second day of trial when Stead called latent fingerprint examiner Mark Bryant to the stand. Bryant had testified in court on 30 previous occasions, so he knew how to gain the confidence of a jury, to explain his job in terms they could understand:
There are 75 to 100 ridge characteristics in fingerprints; thousands on palm prints. To make a positive identification, print examiners must match just eight from the rolled, or known, print to the latent print. He matched 16 on Derris’ print. Three other examiners did the same.
Bryant’s testimony was simple and damning, until Adam Nemann rose to deliver his cross-examination, the color transparencies Leis made in his hand.
Just as Leis had done in his office, Nemann placed the photograph of the drywall before it had been sprayed with amido black under the photograph of the drywall after it had been sprayed with amido black. He used a projector to display the photographs on the courtroom wall.
Nemann’s message was immediately clear to all who gazed up at them: Derris’ print was not in the same area where Althea Young spotted blood.
Bryant, who held the corresponding exhibits in his hands, desperately tried to make sense of the images. Were they lined up correctly? Did Nemann have one upside down?
“You tell me,” Nemann challenged. “You’re the expert.”
Once the men agreed on the correct orientation of the photographs and location of Derris’ palm print, Nemann lifted the amido black transparency away, leaving just the image of the drywall and a streak of blood behind. He pointed to the area of the palm print.
“When looking at that picture you don’t see any red substance with the naked eye, do you?” he asked.
Bryant looked stunned. “No, sir.”
Nemann tried not to smile as he looked up at Judge Reece. “We’ve no further questions.”
Bryant’s testimony was the last of the day. As soon as Reece dismissed the jurors, Stead bolted from the courtroom, chased Bryant into the hall and pulled the fingerprint examiner into a waiting elevator. When the doors closed, he exploded.
What the hell was that?
In another elevator, Nemann and Leis gave each other a giddy high five. They were winning.
But by the next morning, the media didn’t seem to understand the significance of Bryant’s testimony. Public sentiment was still clearly in the prosecution’s favor.
Nemann and Leis had no choice but to call a string of alibi and character witnesses to the stand. They wanted to show the jury that the prosecution’s intimations were wrong: There wasn’t a good twin and a bad twin. Dennis and Derris were identical in every way.
Kristian Holloway, who had declined a full scholarship to Howard University in order to stay in Columbus and help clear Derris’ name, swore he was asleep beside her on the night Dennis died. Diane Lewis explained that Derris didn’t have it in his nature to hurt his brother. “He’s the peacemaker, like a preacher,” she said.
One by one, Derris’ history teacher, his chemistry teacher, his biology teacher and his guidance counselor all testified about his flawless reputation and unblemished character. Not one of them believed that he’d murdered Dennis.
“You would have to know them, to see them together,” Martha Hal said when she took her turn on the stand. “There is just absolutely no way.”
But the defense’s emotional momentum halted when Nemann attempted to call Robert Shepherd Holmes. The teenager, after meeting with the judge and lawyers behind closed doors, decided to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights. Those assembled in the courtroom couldn’t decide if it was because he knew something about the murder or because he didn’t want to admit to selling drugs.
“Draw no inference,” Judge Reece instructed the jurors.
The defense rested on March 17. The next day, Tim Mitchell, Doug Stead and Adam Nemann gave closing arguments.
Mitchell and Stead collaborated to slowly and logically chip away at emotion by downplaying Derris’ character, his alibi witnesses and even the heinousness of the crime.
“People who love each other, truly love each other, kill each other every day in this country,” Mitchell said. “Husbands kill wives. Wives kill husbands. Parents shake babies.
“The bloody print says murder,” Stead said. “The print speaks for itself. Physical evidence doesn’t lie, people do. The death of Dennis Lewis was a tragedy. Make your decision without emotion.”
Nemann, once again and carefully, pointed out the flaws in the prosecution’s case. But ultimately, his closing argument came down to just seven words: “He didn’t do it. It’s that simple.”
Just a day after Judge Reece sent them off to deliberate, one juror asked to be dismissed. Her sister-in-law died overnight and she didn’t think she could go on.
Reece ran a hand over his mouth in distress. He had already dismissed the alternate jurors. He needed a solution. Maybe the jury could continue with just 11 members. Maybe the distressed juror could return after the funeral to continue deliberating.
Reece turned to Nemann, expectantly.
“We would object to the jury continuing and ask for a mistrial,” Nemann said. “Taking a break at this point would not be in the best interest of my client.”
Stead stood. “We would not object.”
Reece had no choice. “The court will grant a mistrial.”
Technically, Judge Guy Reece did nothing wrong.
After lawyers offered their closing arguments in the State v. Lewis, he turned to the two alternate jurors and thanked them for their service. Then he dismissed them and instructed the remaining 12 to deliberate.
He could have asked the alternates to stay, to sit in the jury room and listen to the remaining 12 as they decided the fate of Derris Lewis. But it seemed unnecessary, and certainly not the practice of any judge in Columbus, not when a trial is over and the jury likely only hours or days away from a verdict.
Reece never considered the unthinkable – that a juror would suddenly ask to be dismissed from deliberations.
But with six words – “The court will grant a mistrial” - that routine decision had morphed into an agonizing mistake, one that replayed on the evening news for weeks.
“I had to endure the sucking chest wound,” Reece said.
So when Stead and Nemann arrived in Reece’s office that summer with a request to retest evidence, Reece didn’t know whether to feel sick at the possibility of another mistake or grateful for the opportunity to turn a controversial case into an example of justice served.
Reece glanced at Stead, his friend and sometimes golf buddy, for reassurance.
“I think we should retest it,” Stead said.
The state of Ohio has earned a reputation for wrongful convictions. Several high-profile death penalty cases have been overturned by new evidence; several more are pending, so many that the national media has started to take notice. The truth is, it’s not unusual for inmates to proclaim their innocence after conviction. But in Ohio, so many of these claims seem to have merit that the state’s public defender office created a Wrongful Conviction Project. The project investigates claims of flawed science, witness misidentification and false confessions.
Stead had never been attached to one of those potentially flawed convictions. It was a point of great pride for him, so the growing doubt in the Lewis case left him uneasy. Shannon Leis’ theory, that the palm print wasn’t made in blood, seemed plausible and he wanted no part in convicting a potentially innocent man.
So he offered Reece and Nemann this deal: The police lab would test Derris’ palm print for the presence of blood. If blood was present, as his investigators believed, the case would be retried. If the print was left in some other substance, as the defense claimed, the charges would be dropped.
Both sides had to agree to be bound by the results because testing the print could mean destroying it.
“It’s a big gamble,” Reece warned the lawyers.
But it also appeared to be the only way.
So, on the morning of August 6, 2009, lawyers and experts gathered at the Columbus Crime Lab on King Street. Lab technicians had retrieved the piece of drywall from storage and planned to swab the area in question.
Nemann and Leis were terrified. They believed in Derris’ innocence, but not in the experts’ ability to prove it. They worried the police might make another mistake. Or worse, what if they were making a mistake in agreeing to such testing? If the print somehow tested positive for blood, they would lose their best argument – and possible reasonable doubt – for the second trial. But Derris insisted. This was his best chance at proving innocence.
A lab technician ran a moistened cotton swab over Derris print and added a few drops of ethanol, phenolphthalein and hydrogen peroxide. The results are immediate. If the swab turns pink, blood is present.
The lab tech lifted the swab into the air.
It was white.
Nemann, feeling vindicated, immediately exited the lab and rushed down the hall to the conference room where Stead was waiting. He wanted to be the one to tell him. He threw the door open.
“No blood,” he said. Stead just nodded.
Meanwhile, Leis ran to her car and started driving to the county jail. She was sobbing. She and Nemann had done it; they had exonerated an innocent man.
“I’m here to see Derris Lewis for the last time,” she told the guard when she arrived. “Because he’s getting out today.”
She waited in front of the elevator, willing the doors to open. When they finally did, she dropped to her knees.
“You’re innocent,” she screamed. “You’re getting out of here.”
“I know,” he said. “I’m already packed.”
Though Reece and Stead rushed Derris’ paperwork through the system and guards planned to walk the teenager out a back entrance, a storm of media and family members were still waiting. Instead of making them reunite in view of strangers and cameras, guards allowed Diane into the building. She carried a bouquet of pink flowers, the only way the family could think to mark the occasion.
Derris’ normally stoic exterior crumbled when he saw his sister. The siblings embraced and held each other for a long time, just as they had on the night Dennis died. Then they quietly walked out of the jail, weaved through the cheering crowd and climbed into Diane’s waiting car.
They drove directly to Eastlawn Burial Park, where Dennis is buried.
Derris hadn’t attended his brother’s burial. It was too painful to watch his twin be lowered into the ground and covered with soil. Derris didn’t want to bury Dennis, literally or figuratively. So he stayed home with his mother while the rest of the family said goodbye. Now, as he stared down at the simple stone slab, etched with a pair of praying hands and the words “brother,” Derris realized even more acutely that his twin was gone and buried. Both brothers had been taken from the world. But Derris had returned. Standing in the vast cemetery, taking the hot, humid air into his lungs, Derris realized it was the first time he had breathed fresh air in 18 months, and that his brother never would again.
There is an old photograph of Dennis and Derris, taken when the twins were 5 or 6 years old. They are staring directly at the camera, heads tilted toward each other, wearing matching smiles and blue, striped shirts.
In that photograph, no one can tell them apart. Not April, not Diane, not even Derris.
In the weeks after his release, Derris began to feel like his whole life was that photograph. Each time he caught his reflection, in a mirror, in a window, in a photograph, he saw his brother. And each time, for just a moment, his heart leapt with the possibility, then sank with the reality.
Dennis was gone. That face belonged only to Derris now.
It wasn’t enough that the passenger seat of his car, the spot typically reserved for Dennis, was empty, that no one was able to finish his sentences when he had trouble gathering the words, that the career in forensic science that the twins had planned now seemed macabre instead of dreamy. Now, even his own image filled Derris with pain.
No one seemed to understand Derris’ agony. His longtime girlfriend, Kristian, broke up with him just before his release, blaming his extended absence for their failed relationship. His family tried to empathize, but many soon became frustrated with Derris’ melancholia. They’d had time to mourn, to get accustomed to life without Dennis. Derris had been swept away to live as a criminal, forced to obsess over his own survival. There had been little time for grief.
And though he was free of the county jail, he was not free of suspicion. No matter where he went – to the store, to sign up for classes at Ohio State, to visit his teachers at East – everyone seemed to stare.
It felt increasingly unfair.
Judge Reece, Doug Stead and the detectives all seemed to believe the system worked in Derris’ case. They viewed the mistakes made as necessary hurdles on the way to justice. But to Derris, those mistakes were permanent scars and his release was not enough to erase the damage done to his life and reputation. Though his record was expunged, the electronic trail of news articles and images, which anyone can access with a simple Internet search, had not disappeared.
Exoneration was supposed to restore order to Derris’ life. Instead, it felt messier, and more painful, than ever before. He decided he needed more than freedom.
“I want an apology,” he told Nemann.
There was only one way to get it.
Research shows that the earning power of young men shrinks rapidly and permanently after incarceration and rarely rebounds, even if the accused are exonerated.
Armed with this research and buoyed by Mayor Mike Coleman’s vow to make amends for police mistakes, Derris sued the city of Columbus.
But before the suit reached trial, the two sides agreed on a $950,000 settlement and a public apology. (Because Derris elected to have the money invested in an interest-bearing annuity and paid to him over two decades, the final amount will likely top $1.2 million.)
To people in Linden, Derris was rich. Family came to him with outstretched hands and visions of new cars and houses. His biological father, who never visited or wrote Derris while he was incarcerated, suddenly called. Strangers stared at him when he went out. Some even asked for money.
But, as Derris would soon learn, even $1.2 million stretched out over his lifetime was merely supplemental. His expenses – once comprised only of his car, clothes and rent – multiplied after his release. He had to take care of April and pay for school (Ohio State rescinded his full scholarship when he failed to begin classes on time due to his incarceration). And his ability to find a job was severely hindered by the murder accusation and publicity that accompanied it.
He wasn’t rich. He was still struggling to get by.
Spring came early to Columbus in 2012. By May, thermometers regularly crept north of 80 degrees, and Ohio State University students fled their dorms, where they’d locked themselves through an icy winter, and flooded the grassy gathering place known as The Oval.
There, bikini-clad undergrads brave enough to bare pale winter skin reclined on towels and backpacks, hardback books propped open on their bellies. Their admirers pretended not to notice, whipping Frisbees across The Oval and through the breeze, where they landed softly on outstretched fingertips. An Asian student donned a smiley-faced sandwich board and high fived passersby. “High fives free all day,” her companion shouted. An older, bearded man with fidgety hands stood in the center of a crowd and warned those who gathered before him about the dangers of sex, premarital or otherwise.
But Derris Lewis saw none of this.
He wasn’t on The Oval on that May day. As usual, he was holed up in the basement of Campbell Hall, a low-slung, brick building near the library with a grand front staircase and graceful arches.
Campbell’s interior is clean, but outdated. The heavy wooden doors that line the hallways are nicked with time and age, the tiled floors are dingy in the center, where foot traffic has worn them, and the air conditioning blows so weakly some who work in the building deny the system’s existence.
But the basement hallway – long and narrow and bright – is delightfully still and mostly deserted, if you crave that kind of silence, and Derris does. His desk is a wooden folding table, parked against a scuffed white wall. Each day, he scrubs it down with baby wipes before he spreads his books across it, situating himself so he can see the clock on the wall, counting down the hours until his next class. He doesn’t consider what he’s missing outside; he only appreciates what he’s avoiding.
In Campbell Hall, no one bothers him. No one stares or whispers or asks questions.
Since his exoneration and financial settlement, anonymity has become the criterion by which Derris judges public places. He shops at a Wal-Mart 25 miles from his apartment because no one there recognizes him, or at least they do him the courtesy of ignoring him. He quit a part-time job at a payday loan company when coworkers pulled up old news stories on their computers and surreptitiously began reading about his incarceration. On a trip to Wendy’s, another customer examined his face – the dark skin, the wide forehead, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes.
“You’re that twin boy,” the customer said.
“No,” Derris lied, “but people say I look just like him.”
This is the life of the exonerated. Just because you are no longer incarcerated doesn’t mean you’re free.
Not everyone is so easily fooled, though. Sherry White wasn’t. The first time the Campbell Hall janitor saw Derris in her building, she approached without hesitation, pulled off a blue cleaning glove and stuck her hand out. She wanted to tell him that she’d always believed in his innocence, even when the police and the local media insisted on his guilt. She wanted to tell him that she felt for his mother, April Lewis; that with three children of her own, all in their mid-20’s, she knows what it’s like for a mother watch kids grow, and to feel their fates slip out her hands. She wanted to tell him to stay focused on his studies, because he would need an education to overcome all he had been through. But she could manage only these words: “Keep your head up. Keep doing what you’re doing.”
It was simple and warm, without judgment or intrusion. It didn’t carry the weight of those who call Derris a symbol of how the justice system, though flawed, still works; or the fury of those who call him an example of what happens when the cops screw up.
So when Sherry uttered those words – “Keep your head up. Keep doing what you’re doing” – and offered her hand, Derris didn’t ignore her or lie to her. He lifted his eyes from his books, abandoned his solitude for a just a moment, and smiled.
“Thank you,” he said. “I will.”
Shortly after dropping the charges against Derris, the Columbus Police Department and Franklin County Prosecutor’s office made three decisions involving the Lewis family.
The first was to introduce a mandate that requires detectives and crime scene investigators to walk through a crime scene together. It’s designed to avoid the kind of mistakes that resulted in Derris’ arrest but, ironically, it wouldn’t have prevented it. Derris was arrested because detectives, crime scene investigators and fingerprint analysts never sat together to look at and discuss the evidence.
The second decision was to retain alternate jurors through not only a trial, but also the proceeding deliberation. Judges and prosecutors hope it will avoid the type of mistrial that occurred in the Lewis trial and, in the halls of the courthouse, it is commonly referred to as “The Derris Lewis Law.”
The third, and seemingly most important, decision was to assign cold case detective Ralph Taylor to investigate Dennis’ murder.
Ralph Taylor, a 20-year veteran of the police department, is the senior detective in the Columbus’ cold case unit with a knack for clearing cases that appear unsolvable.
He’s also black. To Taylor, that fact matters.
“Different detectives, different chains of command, get different results,” he said. “Race and color have a lot to do with it.”
And before the files even reached his hands, he had a hunch race and color had a lot to do with the Lewis case. He sensed it first sitting in a meeting with fellow cold case detectives. The city had just agreed to pay Derris nearly $1 million and detectives believed their unit would soon be assigned to reinvestigate. They started rattling off theories: It was a drug deal gone wrong. It was the wrong house. The killer was that young dealer, Robert Shepherd Holmes. No, it was Derris’ cousin, Joey.
Or, maybe, it was Derris after all.
“You guys got this all wrong,” Taylor finally interrupted.
Those who believed Robert Shepherd Holmes had pulled the trigger pointed to his clothes as evidence. The day after Dennis’ death, Holmes was spotted wearing red and black Jordans, red and black jeans and a red and black shirt; clothes detectives believe he stole from 1161 Loretta.
“You think if you just shot someone, and you know the police are coming, you stop to grab some shoes and a matching outfit?” Taylor asked.
He had an even harder time believing Derris had done it, not because the teenager wasn’t capable of killing his own twin brother, but because he wasn’t capable of killing his own twin brother in front of his mother.
“Black kids raised by single mothers don’t hurt their moms,” Taylor said. “Their mom is all they have.”
After the meeting, Taylor knew that if his unit caught the Lewis case, he would be the investigator. You don’t get to act like a smart ass in a meeting and get away with it.
He was right.
“The Lewis case is yours,” his supervisor announced a few weeks later, dumping a box of files on Taylor’s desk.
Admittedly, Taylor had the luxury of hindsight, but as he studied the pages of the police reports before him, and conducted his own interviews with witnesses, he found multiple problems with the Lewis case. The physical evidence was obviously faulty, but that’s not what truly troubled Taylor. He spent many years working homicide, so he understands the difficulties of the job, especially in high profile cases, and he doesn’t like to second guess colleagues, but after a few months when he approached his supervisor with an update, he spoke frankly.
“Derris didn’t do it. I know he didn’t do it.”
He believed Derris’ lawyers, family and friends were right all along: Detectives bungled this case. It was marred by faulty decisions, illogical assumptions and unexamined suspects, including Lewis cousin Joey Westbrook. Maybe detectives and prosecutors had simply allowed the physical evidence to overshadow promising leads. Or maybe, more troublingly, they had allowed stereotypes about poor, black teenagers from bad neighborhoods to taint their investigation: Derris must have done it, because he lived in Linden.
Whatever the cause, their mistakes cost a young man 18 months of his life and Taylor believed that, unless they convicted the real killer, those mistakes could very well follow Derris for the remainder of his life.
He has a theory that runs through Portsmouth and involves Joey Westbrook. It is a theory similar to the one Adam Nemann proposed years ago: The intruders knew Westbrook had been arrested for dealing and that he spent time at his aunt’s home in Columbus. His stash was likely to be there. So they broke into the house looking for money and instead found a 17-year-old kid who was willing to do anything to protect his mom.
The theory explains why the intruders demanded money from April, why they turned the house upside down, and why no officer or detective in Columbus has encountered any street chatter about the case. No confidential informant, no jailhouse snitch, no one, has said a word.
Because, Taylor believes, even when detectives weren’t looking at Derris, they were still looking in the wrong place.
Dennis’ killers aren’t from Columbus. They’re from Portsmouth.
And until someone there starts talking, Dennis’ death will remain unsolved.
It’s been more than six years since Dennis died, five since Derris was cleared of his murder, but the effects still reverberate in the lives of those who knew the twins.
Juvenile Judge Dana Preisse, who had always believed in Derris’ innocence, paid for his books during his first semester at Ohio State. Detective Althea Young retired from the Columbus Police department and still refuses to speak about the case, even to Cold Case Detective Ralph Taylor. Joey Westbrook was sentenced to 16 years for drug trafficking, possessing criminal tools and tampering with evidence. When Taylor interviewed him there, he regretfully agreed his associates could have been responsible for Dennis’ death. Martha Hal left East High School and the Mighty Marching Tigers to take a position as an administrator elsewhere in the district. She calls the eternal loss of Dennis and the temporary loss of Derris the worst thing that’s ever happened to her.
In some cases, the effects have been even more profound and surprising.
Doug Stead stares out of a window on the 14th floor of the Franklin County Courthouse. A fine mist is slipping past, falling on the rooftops below. He’s trying not to look across the table at his boss, Prosecuting Attorney Ron O’Brien. He doesn’t want O’Brien to know he’s crying, but when he speaks, his cracking voice gives him away.
He’s recounting that moment in the courthouse, when he saw Derris for the first time since his release. Derris was walking toward the elevators; Stead away from them. He could have turned around, he could have melted into the crowd, but he took several deliberate steps toward the young man he’d falsely accused of murder.
“I apologized. I don’t second guess the decisions, but I was part of a wrong. He spent 18 months in jail …”
Stead pauses to gather his composure before he talks about the thing that bothers him most – that when justice finally came for Derris Lewis, it didn’t come at Stead’s hands.
“I didn’t discover the mistake, someone else did.”
The night after Dennis Lewis died, after he’d paid his respects at Diane’s house, after he’d cried with friends at school and told Derris how sorry he was, Andre Johnson finally stopped moving. He lay in his bed, where it was dark and quiet, and let the reality finally wash over him – Dennis wouldn’t be returning to school on Monday. He wouldn’t be graduating with the class in June. He wouldn’t be driving to Florida with Johnson in the fall to attend Bethune-Cookman. As if to prove the loss to himself, Johnson called Dennis’ cell phone over and over again for hours, knowing that he wouldn’t get an answer, but needing to hear the sleepy and familiar J Holiday ring back song that now sounded so prophetic:
Cause I can't breathe when you talk to me
I can't breathe when you're touching me
I suffocate when you're away from me
So much love you take from me
I’m going outta my mind
All of these years later, when Johnson hears that song, he still feels loss. But now it isn’t his loss of Dennis that hits him hardest, it’s Derris’ loss of a normal life. Derris didn’t attend his senior prom, didn’t graduate with his class, didn’t even get his photograph in the yearbook.
“It upsets me to this day,” Johnson says. “They (the police) spent so much time on Derris. He deserved that full ride to OSU. High school graduation – that’s a big thing. Not having Dennis and Derris there, it hurt me. Taking that away from Derris, taking away 18 months of his life, I don’t think it’s right at all. I think everybody deserves to know who it is or who did it.”
Detective Jay Fulton was a couple of beers into happy hour when he spotted Adam Nemann across the bar. Though Fulton won’t talk about the case or what he said to Nemann that night when he approached, Nemann remembers his words well.
Fulton told the lawyer that during his interrogation of Derris, after he yelled at Derris to show some emotion and slammed the door, he walked right over to Althea Young and said: I don’t think this kid did it.
But Young was the lead detective. She had a piece of physical evidence and the support of the county’s prosecuting attorney. For her, it trumped the hunch of a seasoned interrogator.
So, within the hour, Fulton formally arrested Derris.
Adam Nemann and Shannon Leis haven’t seen each other in months. But they’ve agreed to meet for happy hour after work to catch up.
They have a lot to talk about.
Leis is a partner at Sydow Leis and has an impressive new office; Nemann heads Nemann Law Offices and just defended another teenage client who grabbed national headlines – this time, a high school football player from Steubenville, Ohio, accused of rape.
But, as always, their conversation eventually turns to Derris.
His case made Nemann and Leis stars. The Central Ohio Association for Justice honored them each with a Louisville Slugger Award for courtroom advocacy; their alma mater, Capital University, named them alumni of the year.
“Though we’re very pleased with the outcome ultimately, we think it could have been prevented,” Nemann says. “It is an injustice that we made better, but it was an injustice. We’ve accomplished a lot with our careers through this case, and we’re pleased with people who have recognized that, but we still have an individual who some suspect killed his twin brother. We want justice for him and his family.”
To help achieve that, on fifth anniversary of Dennis’ death, Nemann added $5,000 of his own money to the $2,000 reward already being offered by Southern Ohio Crime Stoppers for information leading to an arrest or conviction in the case.
Nemann’s donation and a subsequent interview with a local television reporter brought renewed attention to Dennis’ case but, so far, no arrests.
April Lewis sits in her tiny apartment in Westerville, Ohio, the idyllic Columbus suburb she moved to while Derris was incarcerated. Her disease has progressed so rapidly that she needs round-the-clock care. It Derris’ turn. They watch Maury Povich and chat during commercials.
The subject soon turns to Derris’ discontent. Though he has a girlfriend and will soon graduate from Ohio State with a degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, he aches for something more.
“What do you want, Little Derris?” April asks.
Derris slumps on the love seat a bit, as if pouting. “I want to leave Ohio, that’s what I want to do.”
April turns her head away from the television and for a moment and gazes warmly upon her youngest child. She knows, though it has been years since his exoneration, he often feels like he is still imprisoned. Landlords and employers repeatedly deny his applications. Strangers still stare or ask for money. One family member, during an argument she later regretted, told Derris, “I wish you’d died instead of Dennis.”
So though April needs her son in Columbus to help her, though she wishes she could fix all that’s wrong for him, she ignores the irritation apparent in Derris’ voice and answers him calmly.
“Well, if that’s what you want to do, I understand that,” she says. “Whatever it takes, I’m behind you.”
August 10, 2014.
It’s the day Derris has been imagining since he was a child. It’s the day he’ll walk into Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center in cap and gown and walk out a college graduate, fulfilling part of the promise he made Dennis all those years ago.
He’s not sure what he’ll do after. He may take a job in Columbus, working with at-risk teens. Or he may move to Charlotte, N.C., where his girlfriend now lives, and search for jobs there.
Whatever he chooses, those who know Derris all say this: He will succeed.
Judge Reece believes the growing number of exonerated people in this country can either let their destinies be controlled by their incarceration or they can let it go as a bump in the road of life and grab hold of greater destinies. He thinks Derris will do the latter.
“One thing that stood out in Derris’ case – he was an achiever,” Reece said.
Derris believes in that promise of a greater destiny. His experiences have made him wiser, more cynical, always wary of people's intentions. But at his core, he's still that 6-year-old who made a pact with his brother; he’s still just a kid trying to make it out of Linden.
About the Author
April Johnston worked for nearly 10 years writing in-depth narratives for newspapers and magazines in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio. She has won more than 30 national, regional and state journalism awards, including the inaugural Jim Crawley Award for Regional Reporting from Military Writers and Editors. She shared that award with co-writer, Kevin Maurer.
In 2003, April traveled to Dortmund, Germany, to serve as a John J. McCloy Journalism fellow for the American Council on Germany. The resulting stories earned her a Distinguished Writing Award from the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association. Johnston also spent a year as the senior writer in West Virginia University’s office of News and Information Services.
In addition to non-fiction, Johnston also writes fiction. Her work has been published in The Mix Tape, Monkey Puzzle #10, Newport Review, Foundling Review, 50 to 1, Blink Ink, Oklahoma Review, Journal of Microliterature and Cobalt Review. Her short stories have been performed on stage twice, once at the Denver Civic Theatre and again at the University of Denver Department of Theatre. Her story “Ira” was a finalist for Newport Review’s Flash Fiction Contest.
Contact her at email@example.com
STORY BY: April Johnston
PHOTOGRAPHS AND VIDEO BY: David Smith
EDITED BY: Kristen Doerschner
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: firstname.lastname@example.org
When I asked Derris if I could write his story, I knew I was really asking him to relive the most difficult time in his young life. Not only did he agree to do that, but he did it with honesty and strength. I am constantly amazed at what he’s overcome and at his ability to power on. Thank you, Derris. We should all be as optimistic and as goodhearted as you are.
Many, many thanks to Shannon Leis and Adam Nemann. Not only did they introduce me to Derris, but they helped me to navigate this complicated story. Their time and energy have been invaluable and their affection for Derris palpable. Without them, this story could not have been written.
Thanks to Derris’ family, friends, teachers and acquaintances: April Lewis, Diane Lewis, William Smith, Kim Carter, Martha Hal, Andre Johnson, Cjanelle (Sanders) McConnell, Mark Langford, Martha McFerran Dahya, Valorie Rushing and Sherry White. Like Derris, I asked you to relive a terrible time and I am so grateful for your help.
Thanks to the many investigators, detectives, prosecutors and judges who so generously gave up their time to explain their role in the Lewis case, even when that role was difficult to explain: Dana Preisse, Guy Reece, Doug Stead, Ron O’Brien, Ralph Taylor and Bob Britt.
Thanks to the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University, where administrators and colleagues provided valuable support and advice.
Thanks to Kristen Doerschner, who edited this project with honesty and impeccable taste. You are awesome.
Finally, thanks to my husband, David, who served as photographer and videographer for this project and whose support was, as always, unwavering throughout this process. He is as much responsible for the finished product as I am.