Federal Jury Breaks For Weekend In Ohio Arson Case

CLEVELAND (AP) - A fire that killed eight children and a woman at a birthday sleepover was a crime "conceived in hell," a prosecutor said Friday in the trial of a Cleveland man accused of arson, whose attorney maintains his client was framed by jailhouse snitches.

Antun Lewis, 27, a small-time drug dealer from Cleveland, has pleaded not guilty and has said he would not have harmed the children.

Lewis, dressed in a gray suit, blue shirt and print tie, sat with his hands folded near his chin as both sides summed up their cases Friday afternoon in U.S. District Court. He waved lightly to his mother, who sat in court across from three rows of relatives of victims.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Corts, pacing near an easel with color photos of the victims, said the 2005 fire was "conceived in the bowels of hell."

"This was a senseless and horrific crime," he said.

Defense lawyer Angelo Lonardo challenged prosecution testimony that placed Lewis at the scene and reminded jurors that several witnesses who were on the street at the time saw nothing suspicious.

"There's nobody walking down the street with a gas can," he said.

Lonardo said Lewis' criminal background paled in comparison to the career criminals who testified for the prosecution, placing Lewis at the scene of the fire and saying he bragged about it in prison.

Corts displayed cell phone records to trace Lewis' whereabouts on the night of the fire and said Lewis had lied about that to investigators.

Lewis didn't testify at the trial, which went to the jury Friday afternoon. Jurors deliberated for more than two hours before recessing for the weekend. They're scheduled to return Monday.

Lewis could face life in prison if convicted.

Lewis' mother said he had nothing to do with the fire and was home when it began several blocks away.

Evidence showed the house was routinely locked at night, Lonardo said, so anyone who entered to set the fire had regular access, perhaps a key. "There's no evidence that Antun fits that description," Lonardo said.

Corts reminded jurors of testimony that Lewis had purchased $5 worth of gasoline just before the fire and that an ex-convict who served as a lookout placed him at the scene.

The prosecution suggested that the fire may have been set over a drug debt, but Lonardo reminded jurors that the woman who survived the fire with severe burns, Capritta Bell, testified that she wasn't a drug dealer.

He suggested that Bell, because of her burns, would have been determined to finger Lewis if he had set the fire.

"Her flesh was melting off of her body," Lonardo said.

Corts, gesturing repeatedly to Lewis, sought to deflect the question of motive, saying the government had no responsibility to prove one. "We may never know," he said.

The judge in the trial ruled out the death penalty, citing evidence that Lewis has a mental disability.

The fire killed 33-year-old Medeia Carter, four of her children and four other youngsters attending a sleepover marking Moses Williams Jr.'s 14th birthday.

The fire gutted the 99-year-old frame house in an impoverished, inner-city neighborhood. The case went to federal court on the basis of the house's federally subsidized rent.