A detective said he’d been framed. That didn’t help. The FBI concluded he’d been framed. That didn’t help. Now, 21 years after his arrest for a spectacular double-murder he swore he never committed, Scott Lewis got to take his quest for freedom to a federal judge—and returned to jail with a glimmer of hope.
Lewis and his family saw that glimmer Wednesday during a three-hour hearing in the Church Street U.S. District Court before Judge Charles S. Haight, Jr.
The hearing concerned dry, procedural legal questions.
At stake was a broader question: Whether to give a chance for exoneration to a long-imprisoned man who has come across stunning revelations about one of New Haven’s most dramatic murder cases in decades.
That man is Scott Lewis. And the judge insured that Lewis will return to court to present at least part of his case for freedom.
Back on Oct. 11, 1990, he was a 25-year-old New Haven drug dealer. On that day at 4 a.m., two men in the Hill neighborhood burst into the home of former Alderman-turned drug courier Ricardo Turner and his lover Lamont Fields, shot them dead in their bed. Police arrested Lewis and another dealer and charged them with the murder. The pair insisted on their innocence. They lost; Lewis got a 120-year sentence.
Today Lewis is 46 years old. He has spent his decades of incarceration learning the law and fighting to be freed. He has lost at every step of the appeals process in Connecticut.
He lost despite a series of revelations that cast serious doubt on his conviction. One of those revelations: A trusted police informant told a cop (future Chief Francisco Ortiz) that someone else had confessed in accurate detailto the murder, in detail; that someone else’s name and number were in Ric Turner’s address book, while Lewis’s was not. Another revelation: A now-retired detective testified that a fellow detective, Vincent Raucci, fabricated a story pinning the murder on Lewis and forced an unstable 17-year-old crook with a history of mental instability to swear to it; the “story” of that “witness” became the basis of the state’s case at trial. A third revelation: The FBI launched an 18-month probe into Lewis’s claims—and produced mountains of evidence that former Detective Raucci was heavily involved with crack cocaine and a New England mob-connected dealing ring. (Read the report, which includes juicy details about the operations of the regional drug trade and police misbehavior, here. Raucci has consistently denied all allegations.) The report also featured an extensive recantation by that 17-year-old witness, upon whose testimony the state based its case against Lewis.
FBI agents concluded Lewis was innocent, had been framed. (Click here to read a 1998 New Haven Advocate expose that made the report public and detailed the case, including Raucci’s side.) But state prosecutors were sure they had the right guy, even as they acknowledged Raucci’s separate legal problems.
So Lewis, mostly acting as his own lawyer, worked his way through appeals in the Connecticut court system. Then he filed a last-ditch petition. He sought a writ for habeas corpus to have a federal judge hear his claim that all this new information means the state violated his constitutional rights by withholding crucial “exculpatory” evidence, relying on perjured testimony, and excluding key information about the possible real killer. (Read Lewis’s petition here.)
Along the way, a new team of supporters concluded Lewis is innocent: Attorneys from a Yale Law School clinic. They took up his case for free. They dived into legal and fact-finding research. On Wednesday they surrounded a manacled Lewis at the defense table before Judge Haight and filled several benches in the gallery.
“This is not a hearing on the merits of Mr. Lewis’s habeas corpus petition,” Haight told Lewis’s team of Yale lawyers.
Instead, it was a hearing on whether he should have a chance to get a future day in federal court to argue those merits.
The state argues that the judge shouldn’t allow the petition to be heard because of mistakes Lewis allegedly made as his own lawyer in the state cases. It claims Lewis is bringing up new arguments that he never really made before the state appellate court, and therefore hadn’t “exhausted” all the remedies available in the state system. For instance, he’s asking the federal court to hear his case because the state failed to make available crucial pieces of evidence that could have exonerated—specifically, Detective Sweeney’s testimony that the star witness’s statement had been fabricated and coerced. The state also claims that Lewis, acting as his attorney, failed to follow established legal procedures in his state appeals. For instance, he didn’t append a full lower-court trial transcript to a subsequent appeal. Click here to read the state’s brief arguing against Lewis’s petition.
By day’s end Wednesday, Lewis learned that he will be able to make at least part of his case for freedom. The judge announced that on one of his three main claims—that the information about the alleged confession of the real killer shouldn’t have been excluded at trial—Lewis will be granted a hearing to make his case. The question that now remains is whether he’ll also be allowed to make the case on his two other main claims, about the alleged perjury of the main witness against him at trial, and the suppression of the Detective Sweeney revelation about the fabricated statement.
“He Gambled. He Lost”
Dressed in orange prison khakis, his head shaved, Lewis sat staring intently with folded fingers as two recent Yale law grads, Emily Washington and Anjali Srinivasan, presented extensive rebuttals before Judge Haight Wednesday.
They read from a key document in question—a 2002 petition to the state Supreme Court—to identify repeated citations to the Sweeney testimony. They argued that even acting as his own attorney, Lewis offered all relevant exhibits and met the requirements under legal precedent for what kind of documentation to include in such submissions.
Assistant State’s Attorney JoAnne Sulik, seated alone at her table, swung back with two philosophical arguments.
She acknowledged that Lewis’s references to Sweeney’s testimony appeared in the 2002 document—but only in passing, buried in the document, obliquely. And that’s not good enough, she said. A lawyer (in this case Lewis) needs to present prominently and clearly his main claims.
“Appellate judges aren’t pigs rooting around for truffles,” she argued. “You [should] tell them what your claim is. You tell them why the lower court got it wrong” instead of making them “hunt around” for references.
Judge Haight interjected.
“Keep in mind Mr. Lewis at the time was a pro se [self-representing] litigant,” he reminded Sulik. “He composed the  petition himself.”
Does that fact, he asked Sulik, “require an appellate court to root a little harder?”
“It really doesn’t,” Sulik responded without hesitation. She noted that Connecticut law gives defendants “a right to counsel in a habeas proceeding.” Lewis chose to represent himself; he could have had a better lawyer.
Haight wasn’t satisfied. Can you cite a Connecticut legal precedent that instructs the state not to offer some extra latitude to a convict representing himself?
No, said Sulik. Yes, a pro se petitioner might merit some latitude. But not on fundamental questions such as highlighting the very basis of his claim, she argued.
She offered a similar response when the judge questioned her arguments about the procedural questions, such as whether he should have included a full trial transcript in his state appellate petition.
“He gambled” on representing himself, Sulik responded. “He lost.”
One Hope At A Time
That exchange gave Ruth Toms, Lewis’s mother, hope that maybe her son won’t lose this next round of his never-ending legal quest. So did Haight’s mention late in the hearing that at the very least, Lewis will be able to appear before him to argue at least one of the three substantive claims, the one related to the third-party confession by a different alleged killer.
“It seems like the judge is giving him a chance” rather than shutting a last legal door in his face “just because he missed some technicalities,” Toms said outside the courthouse during a lunch break.
She’s pictured at the top of the story with Lewis’s son, Scott, Jr.; Scott Jr.‘s wife Jessica Santiago and daughter Zaryah. The crew has grown used to showing up at prolonged legal proceedings over the past two decades. It has grown accustomed to maintaining hope in the face of long odds.
“He’s fighting for his life,” Toms said of her son. “As he always does.”
It’s tricky to read too much into a judge’s line of questioning. Although Haight—a 1952 Yale grad (and Skull & Bones member) and Gerald Ford appointee to the federal bench—has a reputation to being open to the plight of criminal defendants. He issued one noted ruling restricting police surveillance, for instance. He once ordered a U.N. official convicted of fraud to teach prison inmates as part of his sentence.
The hope Lewis’s family held out for now wasn’t yet that Haight would agree that Lewis had been framed. It was that they could all return to court to watch Lewis have a chance to make that case in full.
Retired Detective Sweeney shares their feeling. He wasn’t in court Wednesday. (Coincidentally, Sweeney had just spent time as a hospice worker helping another New Haven man who claimed to have been wrongfully jailed for murder, Ron Taylor, die with dignity.)
“I don’t know if they’re innocent of the murder,” Sweeney, reached by phone Wednesday, said of Lewis and the other man convicted of the double murder, Stefan Morant. “I know that the statement implicating these guys was fabricated. If you build something on false pretenses, it shouldn’t go forward. They should have another trial for these guys.”