Scott Lewis Comes Home

Paul Bass PhotoScott Lewis was staring at 41 more years in prison for a double murder that sparked an FBI-fueled rallying cry against police corruption. Then Wednesday he was freed, came home—and took two baths.

Lewis (pictured) didn’t know if he’d ever see the day he’d go free. But he never stopped believing.

“I couldn’t stop believing,” he said in between bites of a hot pastrami-and-cheese sandwich Thursday, his second day of freedom. “That wasn’t even a thought in my mind. I had to believe in justice.”

Lewis went to jail at 29 years old, sentenced to 120 years. (That sentence was later reduced on appeal to 60.)  He walked out of jail at 48 years old. Nineteen years after he became MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution inmate #137682, Lewis reentered a world of ubiquitous cell phones and Internet surfing. He was just starting to take it in.

Meanwhile, he turned on the water.

Popular lore has it that inmates take long showers when they come home, because showers are kept brief behind bars. Lewis took the chance both Wednesday night and Thursday morning to hop in the tub instead.

“First thing I wanted to do was take a bath,” Lewis, who is now 48 years old, said in an interview at a suburban diner. “All you could do was shower.”

He couldn’t take a full bath, though; he thought he had to keep his ankle out of the tub. He has a GPS monitor attached to his ankle. That’s because, for all the drama and joy of his homecoming, he hasn’t fully completed his journey through the maze of a state legal system slow to acknowledge mistakes.

He has come far, though.

Lewis was one of two men sent to prison in effect for life for allegedly carrying out one of the most sensational murders in recent New Haven history. A jury found Lewis guilty of shooting a former New Haven alderman-turned-drug-dealer named Ricardo Turner and his lover in their bed in 1990. An FBI investigation subsequently concluded that a crooked cop involved in the cocaine trade set up Lewis and his co-defendant, Stefon Morant, for a murder they didn’t commit. But the state remained convinced it had prosecuted the right killers—and fought their efforts to go free.

Lewis kept battling for his freedom from behind bars, representing himself in continual legal challenges. His quest attracted the support of criminal-justice reform advocates, as well as of a team of volunteer lawyers led by Columbia Law School Professor Brett Dignam, with support
from students in her Mass Incarceration Clinic. After seven state judges rejected Lewis’s various appeals, a federal judge in December granted Lewis’s habeas corpus petition, ruling that the state had violated Lewis’s constitutional rights by withholding evidence of his innocence.

But he remained in jail while the state filed an appeal to the judge’s habeas decision and weighed whether to seek to retry Lewis for the murders in case the habeas decision prevails.

Then, on Feb. 14, the state declared that if it loses the habeas appeal, it will not try Lewis for the murder all over again. The lawyers on both sides worked out a deal for Lewis to leave prison and return home pending that habeas appeal.

The judge approved the deal and ordered that the state free Lewis on Wednesday.

He came home under the following conditions, which remain in place pending the habeas appeal:

• He will wear the GPS monitor and report regularly on his status.

• He will let the state know where he’s living and with whom, and his “plans for employment.”

• He will remain in Connecticut.

• He will have “no contact with witnesses from his federal and state trials, except for those to whom he is related.”

Besides the baths, Lewis spent much of the first day with family, friends, Professor Dignam and her students who volunteered on his habeas appeal. He’s staying with family in the suburbs for now while he reconnects with his five adult children, three of whom he’d never met in person before; volunteers at a church; and looks for a job and rebuilds his life.

Lewis would take pretty much any job, he said. Eventually he hopes to turn his full-time 19-year jailhouse preoccupation, the law, into an occupation.

Behind bars, he incessantly researched the law and drew up brief upon brief, motion upon motion, to seek his freedom over those 19 years at McDougall. He earned a diploma in paralegal studies. He’s working on the last 15 credits of 60 needed for an associate’s degree. He’d love to work at a law firm.

“I ate and slept the law” in jail, Lewis said.

Until Wednesday, he’d never seen anyone take a photograph with a cellphone, except on TV. His first 24 hours of freedom convinced him that prisons need to do a better job training inmates in technology to help them succeed when they leave jail.

The state continued to fight to keep Lewis in jail even after the key witness against Lewis changed his story numerous times and was revealed to be completely unreliable. The state did so after an exhaustive FBI investigation, backed up by a local police investigation, determined that the detective who made the case against him was deeply involved in the drug trade and in cahoots with the mob, was regularly framing dealers, allegedly threatened key alibi witnesses from coming forward, and allegedly coached another witness to concoct a story. (The detective, Vincent Raucci, has denied all those allegations.)

Lewis’s case is not the only one in which Connecticut’s prosecutors have fought to keep men in jail when new evidence casts overwhelming doubt on the cases against them.

Lewis was asked his reaction to those now widely-reported facts. He responded first by thanking prosecutors for agreeing not to try him again if they lose the habeas appeal. Then he raised a question about how trials work.

“Because the system is so adversarial,” Lewis reflected, “sometimes the truth is missed.”

Lewis and Dignam’s team still have a government appeal to contest on his habeas.

He’s keeping positive about his prospects there, too. He has completed “90 percent” of that legal journey, he said—and already embarking on his next life journey.

Meanwhile, Dignam has more good news for Lewis: He can get all the way in the bath. The GPS monitor is waterproof.

Click here for a detailed account of the FBI revelations and the specifics of this case, from a 1998 expose in the now-defunct New Haven Advocate. And click here to read the full FBI report, which covered wide ground about New Haven’s drug trade.

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posted by: Samuel T. Ross-Lee on February 27, 2014  6:57pm

As long as our judicial system is set up to focus on wins and loses, as if the lives and freedoms of people that is hanging in the balance is a game, we will continue to have cases like this.

These corrupt cases more times than not operate at the expense of young, poor African-American men and to the benefit of career prosecutors and cops who rarely, if ever, are punished for their misdeeds even when those misdeeds are “discovered” and exposed.

The residual effects of this kind of system, of course, is a community that has every reason to approach the system with an attitude of overwhelming suspicion.  Hence, the no snitching culture that develops among our youth.

Prosecutors and police should be rewarded for seeking justice, not for seeking prison terms. 

The Rev. Mr. Samuel T. Ross-Lee
Immanuel Missionary Baptist Church
New Haven, CT

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on February 27, 2014  7:57pm

The characterization of the FBI investigation, and that of the NHPD, into the lead investigator, when scrutinized, on the same legal standards that this article is claiming occurred to Lewis, one would find that the “investigation” was not that at all, but rumours, inuendos, and delusions, of police detectives who were committing, and admitting to felonies, while working as sworn officers; “crackheads” who were so deeply involved with Frank Parise, their ability to deliver honest and credible statements on what had actually occurred did not exist. The way the report, and the Detective’s actions are characterized in this article, it begs the question “why there was never a prosecution” for dozens of alledged crimes. The answer? The report was without any credible corroboration, or actual evidence to support the allegations. It was a full blown manipulation of a group of unsuspecting federal agents, requested to become involved, by a chief of police, to undermine an investigator, who was getting too close to some other very dark truths about the police department, the chief, a series of other detectives, and detective supervisors, to stop dozens of other homicide investigations. The Cusick case was a good example of just one case from that era, that was buried, to protect a murderer who was working as an informant for either the police, or the feds.

[Bass: The report in fact has many on-the-record interviews with named participants, not just cops, in the detective’s alleged double life. As a reporter I was able to confirm some of these accounts independently. The report also cites witnesses saying they were warned/threatened not to come forward with evidence that Lewis was somewhere else at the time of the murders. The trial’s star witness has repeatedly taken back his testimony.  A separate internal police investigation reached similar conclusions about the detective’s involvement in the drug world; I have seen that file. And I have rarely seen a case investigated, and re-investigated, in as much depth as this case. The reason there was no prosecution: A Catch-22, in which some charges—the Lewis case—were state charges, while some accusations involved in the report were federal. State prosecutors were convinced they still had the right guy. Federal agents concluded the state had the wrong guy, but that wasn’t the potential charge before them. And both agencies, at least at the time, didn’t necessarily have the highest opinion of the other. Another reason the verdict remained in place: In Connecticut we have a bizarre set of laws that lead defendants on whose behalf exculpatory evidence has emerged to have to jump through much higher hoops once they’ve been convicted. I can understand why many people can look at the evidence and not reach an absolute conclusion about Scott Lewis’s guilt or innocence. I don’t understand how someone can look at what has emerged over the past 15 years and conclude that the state had anywhere near approaching enough evidence to prove, or even suggest, that he committed those murders beyond a reasonable doubt. I think the state’s position became: If he’s innocent, he’s got to prove it. Not: If it turns out we didn’t have any reasonable evidence on which to convict him after all, and in fact the evidence is severely tainted that’s a reason to reconsider.

[I looked into the Cusick case, too, and wrote about it. I do believe you make good points about some other problems that were going on in the department, including the potential “other very dark truths.” Despite efforts that took me to the state Freedom of Information Commission, I was never able to prove them.]

posted by: CityofElms on February 27, 2014  9:12pm

And what of the other man who was also framed and falsely incarcerated??

posted by: RHeerema on February 28, 2014  6:44am

Welcome home!!

posted by: robn on February 28, 2014  9:50am

I don’t quite understand it but JATP’s comment is the most DeepThroaty NHI comment ever.

posted by: RACISMISALIVEANDWELL on March 1, 2014  12:41pm

Totally agree Reverend, you couldn’t have summed it up any better.  God bless.

posted by: HewNaven on March 1, 2014  12:53pm

Wow! Having read this back story a few months ago in the ‘R.I.P NH Advocate’ piece, I was somewhat familiar with the details. But JustAnotherTaxpayers comment and Bass’s follow-up make me think there’s much more to this. I suppose there’s always more than the written word. Will we ever know the full truth about this era of corruption?