CLEVELAND — Jurors in the retrial of a man suspected in the arson deaths of a woman and eight children will hear incriminating testimony from at least some jailhouse informants.
The testimony by inmates who shared cell blocks over the years with Antun Lewis, 29, was denounced by the defense as unreliable.
The defense said the testimony was prompted by money paid by the government — one man got more than $20,000 over several years — or the prospect of leniency in their own criminal cases.
U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver, who is presiding over jury selection in the case for a second time, agreed and threw out the conviction last year.
The government indicated at least some of the jailhouse informants would return to the witness stand.
Testimony could begin today after the jury visits the scene and both sides present opening statements.
The informants include career criminals such as alleged accomplice Marion Jackson, who testified he agreed to set the fire but backed out and instead served as a lookout.
Another inmate, Anthony Collier, testified that he heard Mr. Lewis “pretty much incriminate himself” in the fire. Paul McKeever testified that Mr. Lewis said in his cell that “he did set the fire.”
Robert Rotatori, a Cleveland defense attorney unconnected to the case, said recalling the informants to testify carries the risk of inconsistencies with earlier testimony, calling their reliability into question.
“There’s just no way in the world they are going to tell the same story exactly as they had before,” he said Monday.
Prosecutors can limit the risk by calling only the best of the more than a half-dozen informants to back up the government’s case, he said.
Although the judge overturned the conviction, he seemed to suggest that at least some evidence presented during the trial supported one. He granted a new trial, but did not throw out the charges.
The judge said a new trial would provide “an incentive for both sides to better develop the facts.”
Mr. Lewis could face life in prison if convicted.
The fire killed Medeia Carter, 33, four of her children, and four other youngsters attending a birthday sleepover party May 21, 2005.
Authorities say Mr. Lewis, upset over a drug debt, doused the first floor with gasoline, setting what became Cleveland’s deadliest house fire.
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