(USA Today) CLEVELAND -- Late Friday, convicted arsonist Antun Lewis, 30, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for setting a house fire that killed 9 people, including a woman and eight children.
It was the deadliest fire in Cleveland's history.
The prosecutors and the the victims' families had asked for life in prison.
Lewis was found guilty twice by federal juries.
Medeia Carter, 33, four of her children and four other children attending a 14th-birthday sleepover died on May 21, 2005 at an East 87th Street home.
Carter's mother, Evelyn Martin, spoke at the hearing, recounting the horrific events of that late night and early morning. Six of the eight children who died were Martin's grandchildren. She said she rushed to the house when she learned of the fire, pushed through a crowd and screamed one question over and over: "Where are my babies?"
"I had to stand there and watch them bring them out one by one," Martin said.
She recalled seeing some of her grandchildren zipped in body bags and the horrible sight of skin falling off one of her grandsons, who later died.
"I hope you live long enough so all the skin falls off your damned body," she said, glaring at Lewis, who did not look at her.
There was powerful and graphic testimony from Battallion Fire Chief Patrick Mangan who described the hellish sights, sounds and smells of the deadly inferno.
In that house fire, killed were: Fakih Jones, age 7; Malee'ya Williams, age 12; Shauntavia Mitchell, age 12; Earnest Tate, Jr., age 13; Miles Golden Cockfield, age 13; Antwon Jackson, Jr., age 14; Moses Williams Jr., age 14; Devonte Carter, age 15, and Medeia Carter, 33.
Lewis will get credit for time already served so his sentence will be less than 35 years.
One victim's father said Lewis should be placed in a giant and oil-filled skilled and suffer excruciating burns.
Rosalind Golden, whose 13-year-old grandson, Miles Cockfield, was killed in the fire, looked at Lewis and told him he had deprived the world of a wonderful person.
"I don't mean to cry every day," she said, fighting back tears. "I pray to God just not to cry today."
"This defendant is responsible for taking nine innocent lives. A coward in the night, he also stole the hopes and dreams of these families, who will never get to experience high school graduations, weddings, or the other things they had a right to enjoy. Nothing can ever erase the pain this defendant caused, and our hearts go to them all. Their grace and dignity in the face of this tragedy is humbling," said U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbach.
"This sentence brings some closure to a horrific and senseless crime," said Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Special Agent in Charge Michael Boxler.
"It is my hope that this sentencing will bring some comfort to the families of the victims. I also want to compliment the United States Attorney's Office for their leadership in the prosecution of this difficult case, and I want to thank the Cleveland Fire Department, the Cleveland Division of Police, the Ohio State Fire Marshal's Office, and the ATF personnel who worked jointly to perfect this investigation."
Lewis has always said he didn't do it but prosecutors never established a clear motive. There were suggestions he may have set the to settle a drug debt or because he was angry with a woman who kept some of his clothing.
Lewis offered condolences to the victim's family but repeated his innocence. Lewis has long maintained he was at home, several blocks away, when the fire started. His attorneys have said that there was no drug debt and that he passed two polygraph tests.
U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver had already removed the death penalty as a sentence because of Lewis's low IQ.
Judge Oliver called this his "most difficult case." He said he made the lesser sentence because of Lewis's intellectual disability. Oliver said he had trouble believing Lewis set the fire over a drug debt and called the case the toughest he has heard in 20 years on the federal bench. He said he had to weigh various factors, including the public's safety and Lewis' disabilities, in deciding on an appropriate sentence.
"This will keep him off the streets for a very long time," he said.
Outside the court, Golden said she did not understand how Lewis sentence could be only five years per victim.
The judge presided over Lewis' first trial, in early 2011. While a jury convicted Lewis of a count of arson, the judge overturned the verdict because of concerns about the reliability of jailhouse informants who testified against him. The defense portrayed the jailhouse snitches as witnesses willing to say anything in return for lighter sentences.
The 6th U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld the judge's ruling in February 2012 and ordered that Lewis be given a new trial.
The appellate judges pointed out that one witness had a 30-year criminal record and a sixth-grade education, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder and had spent half his life between state hospitals and prisons. That witness also gave numerous inconsistent and contradictory statements about the night of the fire to investigators and at trial, and phone records showed some of them were inaccurate, the judges said.
Prosecutors used some of the witnesses during the second trial, in December 2013, and a jury returned another guilty verdict. Lewis testified in his own defense at the second trial.
Lewis's defense team members said they would continue to stand by him.