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Detroit "juvenile lifer" re-sentencing delayed, again, by missing files

Charles Lewis at a hearing in Wayne County Circuit Court.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
Charles Lewis at a hearing in Wayne County Circuit Court.

A Detroit man sentenced to life without parole for a 1977 murder is entitled to a new sentence.

But efforts just to start that process have stalled again because of missing court files.

Charles Lewis was only 17 when he was convicted in the robbery-murder of an off-duty Detroit police officer.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in two recent cases that sentencing juveniles to life without parole is unconstitutional, except in the “rarest” cases.

Lewis is one of more than 300 Michigan “juvenile lifers” now awaiting re-sentencing, which should mean at least a shot at parole.

But many Michigan prosecutors have shunned the Supreme Court directive, recommending that a vast majority of juvenile lifers be re-sentenced to life without parole.

And in Lewis’s case, the process can’t even get started. That’s because decades worth of court files, including his official trial and sentencing transcripts, seem to have gone missing.

In Wayne County Circuit Court Tuesday, Judge Qiana Lillard said that despite her prior order, no one from the court administrator’s office has gone to look for the missing files.

The court needs “someone who can testify under oath about going to find the file, and not being able to find it” before it can proceed, Lillard said.

Lewis’s attorney, Valerie Newman of the State Appellate Defender’s Office, said that if the file can’t be located, she will ask that Lewis be re-sentenced to a 40-60 year term. He's already served more than 40 years.

Even if missing files weren't an issue, Newman doesn’t think Lewis meets the bar of “irredeemable corruption." That's the standard the Supreme Court said could constitute a “rare case” where a juvenile offender can be kept behind bars for life. 

“Bottom line, he deserves his day in court, and he deserves his due process,” Newman said. “[And] to have that file available so that his attorney, who’s me, can review everything about how we can proceed. How can I possibly effectively represent my client when I don’t have all the information?”

The Wayne County prosecutor’s office doesn't agree. An assistant prosecutor affirmed in court Tuesday that it’s seeking to have Lewis’s life-without-parole sentence re-imposed.

Lewis has filed his own motions from prison, asking that the case be dismissed altogether. Given the apparent loss of case files, and the fact that the Michigan Supreme Court vacated his conviction, Lewis argues his “current detention is unlawful because the defendant is being held in prison with no sentence, no files or records.”

Lewis has also maintained his innocence, as does his family, who argues he should be released immediately and his conviction overturned.

“I would hope they would do what is legitimate and right, and let him go,” said his mother Wendy Lewis. “If you have nothing to hold him for, and you can’t substantiate what you say you had, then you have no charge.”

Judge Lillard adjourned Lewis’s case until October 28th, giving the court one last shot to find the files before presumably declaring them missing and moving ahead with re-sentencing.

His family thinks this is compounding injustice. “The Supreme Court has ruled this is cruel and unusual punishment," said Lewis's sister Wendy Lewis. "It’s still punishment. How much punishment does he have to endure?”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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