Gratitude mixes with regret for Philly man awarded $6M for wrongful murder conviction

Terrance Lewis spent 21 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of murder. He reached a $6 million settlement with the city of Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Kevin Harden Jr.)

Terrance Lewis spent 21 years in prison after he was wrongfully convicted of murder. He reached a $6 million settlement with the city of Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Kevin Harden Jr.)

Terrance Lewis’ jaw dropped when he got the news inside his attorney’s Center City law office.

“I was speechless,” said Lewis. “Had I been standing, my knee would have buckled.”

On Tuesday, roughly a year after filing a wrongful conviction lawsuit in federal court, the 41-year-old won a $6.25 million settlement — and a formal apology — from the city of Philadelphia.

The legal victory is the coda to a larger court battle that cleared Lewis’ name and secured his release from prison more than two decades after a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder when he was 17. But as Lewis reflected on the life-changing sum the next day, his gratitude was mixed with regret.

“The settlement can never repair or restore what has occurred in my life — period,” said Lewis in an interview.

Lewis served time in five state prisons before walking out of SCI Chester a free man in May 2019. A Philadelphia judge unexpectedly overturned his 1996 murder conviction after finding he had been wrongfully convicted.

With each new cell assignment, his frustration and resentment hardened, especially after a Catch-22 court ruling in 2009.

“On a scale of one to 10, it was 100,” said Lewis.

That year, his legal team filed a habeas corpus petition with hopes of getting their client released from prison. A federal judge found that Lewis was, as he had always maintained, not guilty of murder. But the judge also said he couldn’t free Lewis because he was part of the state prison system, and therefore beyond his jurisdiction.

In 2012, while he was still behind bars, Lewis’ sister died from a drug overdose. The next year, his younger brother and stepfather both died from cancer.

Lewis was unable to attend any of their funerals.

“Up until this day, there’s still a hole in my heart that I wasn’t able to say my goodbyes,” he said.

Stack it all up and it’s not hard to understand why Lewis called Wednesday’s settlement a “kind gesture” — a way to help cope with the pain packed into the last two decades.

Lewis plans to sit with a financial advisor, but there are two things he already knows he wants to do with the settlement money.

Lewis’ son Zhaire had to drop out of college and get a job to help his mom pay the bills while his father was still incarcerated. Lewis said he’s going to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

“This is my first gift to my son is to actually send him back to school,” said Lewis.

Lewis also wants to help build up the Terrance Lewis Liberation Foundation, which he created to help others who have been released from prison after being wrongfully convicted. Despite having their names cleared, those who have been wrongfully convicted, and especially those who have served long sentences, still have difficulty finding jobs, housing and gaining credit.

“I’m not the end-all be-all, even with my settlement,” he said.

Fourteen people have now been exonerated by the Conviction Integrity Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office under Larry Krasner.

A violation of due process with big ripple effects

In August 1996, a jury found Lewis guilty of second-degree murder for helping to rob Hulon Bernard Howard, who was shot and killed inside his West Philadelphia home. An autopsy report found the 58-year-old died after he was shot in the back by Lewis’ co-defendant, according to court records.

Lewis was arrested after the case’s sole witness, Howard’s girlfriend, picked him out of a photo array consisting of students at Overbrook High School, where Lewis was a senior at the time.

Only Lewis, who had no previous brushes with the law, fit the description police had for one of the armed suspects who broke into Howard’s home that night to settle a debt. The other teenagers in the photo array were either too young or didn’t match the complexion of the suspect investigators were after, who was said to be carrying a shotgun at the time of the incident.

Yet, just two days after the murder, Howard’s girlfriend had named a completely different person as the armed suspect police were looking for. That exculpatory evidence — evidence that’s favorable to a defendant — was not provided to Lewis or his legal team until 2017, a constitutional violation.

“This demonstrates that we have to continue to be steadfast about the standards by which we judge our criminal justice system,” said Kevin Harden Jr., one of Lewis’ attorneys. “Ten years ago, Terrance Lewis proved his factual innocence to a federal judge and he was allowed to suffer for 10 more years.”

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to give minors like Lewis mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole. In 2016, a second ruling from the high court made that decision retroactive, giving Lewis the opportunity to be resentenced.

In 2019, the day of Lewis’ resentencing hearing, Common Pleas Court Judge Barbara McDermott considered his innocence claim, and abruptly — stunningly — threw out the conviction that hung over Lewis’ head for 21 years, saying his due process rights had been violated.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to retry to the case.

As Lewis, who now works part-time at a homeless shelter, continues the hard work of creating a life for himself, he’s comforted by a silver lining that transcends the turmoil — including the current state of the world as it suffers through the COVID-19 pandemic and America reckons with systemic racism.

“Just to be able to have that privilege, to seek out happiness wherever it is and do it,” Lewis said. “That alone is a blessing.”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.