This is how Scott Lewis, sitting under his nightlight next to his law books, signed each of his legal briefs. Facing a sentence of 120 years, he wrote these motions on old copy paper and brown paper bags in his prison cell.
“Hey, it’s gotta get mailed out, it’s gotta get written,” Lewis told me as we sat in the Branford College common room.
We spoke on Yale’s campus, 49 miles from MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution where Lewis was incarcerated, which was only possible because the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling ordering Lewis’s release from prison. His justice in 2015 came only after he had spent almost 20 years living in a prison cell for a crime that he didn’t commit. This year, Lewis reached a 9.5 million dollar settlement with the City of New Haven.
“I think it is just a very, very unusual case,” said Brett Dignam who, ten years after Lewis’ imprisonment, led a Yale Law Clinic to help win Scott Lewis’ case in the court.
“The fact that we even got to trial was truly remarkable,” Dignam admitted. “But Mr. Lewis is a remarkable person.”
Emily Washington, who worked on the case as a law student through the clinic, told The Politic she agreed: “Someone, someday, I think will probably make a movie out of it.”
In April 1991, 24-year-old Scott Lewis was driving in Milford when he made an accidental left turn at a red light. When a police officer pulled him over, he thought to himself, “Okay, I’m going to get a ticket. I made a wrong turn.”
Lewis handed his license to the officer, who walked back to the cruiser. A minute later, he returned to Lewis’ vehicle—this time with his gun drawn.
“All of this for a damn traffic light?” Lewis recalled thinking.
But the gun was not drawn because of a traffic violation: The policeman had an arrest warrant for a double-homicide.
At 4:00 a.m. on October 11, 1990, Lamont Fields and former Alderman Ricardo Turner were fatally shot in Turner’s apartment. Lewis was placed under arrest for their murder.
Scott Lewis and another man, Stefon Morant, were charged for the crime. Throughout the trial, Lewis denied involvement in the shooting and argued that he had been working at a printing company at the time of the murders. The prosecution rejected his alibi and instead relied on a single eyewitness, Ovil Ruiz, to place Lewis and Morant at the crime scene.
During the trial, Lewis said that he “just had to sit there and swallow it.”
“Even though you know that people are lying, you have to handle yourself with a level of decorum,” he added. “You can’t let it get you angry. You had to hope that the people who were judging these stories that they were hearing, would be able to see through the lies.”
Lewis was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to 120 years in prison. But he refused to spend the rest of his life incarcerated and immediately began efforts to prove his innocence.
Lewis built his own defense and appeal, and then formally represented himself from prison for 13 years in state court proceedings. He carefully adhered to the many procedural rules of filing for a writ of habeas corpus, meaning he reported his unlawful detention to a court.
“I went in. I was poor. I didn’t have a lot of money to pay a lawyer to defend against the state’s accusations,” Lewis said. “I was going against a state that had all the resources in the world. They controlled all the information in the case.” Despite these obstacles, Lewis, confident of his innocence, was determined to win.
Lewis enrolled in a paralegal course offered at his prison and became his own lawyer. As he filed motions, wrote briefs, and compiled evidence, Lewis learned legal writing with “literally no experience whatsoever.”
“I always told myself: I am not in prison, I am at work,” Lewis said, “I just happen to have to work twenty-four hours a day—and I don’t have a social life.” He laughed.
Lewis faced practical barriers as he built a legal defense from inside prison walls. For one thing, Lewis needed law books. He made use of what he could, and took advantage of his thirty-minute allotted increments at the Law Library to gather the written resources he needed.
Every day, he spent roughly twenty hours locked in his cell. Lewis would spend many of them—usually from 6:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night—reading and writing tirelessly at his desk. His room, which he shared with one another inmate, was roughly the size of a walk-in closet.
When it got late, Lewis had to rely on the light from outside cells or make use of a nightlight.
“Just because you’re going to be up all night writing briefs, doesn’t necessarily mean that your celly does,” he said, referring to his cellmate, who sometimes said to him: ‘Hey man, I’m trying to go to sleep! Man you’ve been at the desk all day,’” Lewis recalled.
Some inmates told Lewis that he was unique; others called him crazy.
“I was in prison, physically. But I wasn’t there mentally,” he said.
Despite his rigorous preparation, Lewis’ proceedings in court were taxing.
“I took a beating, man. I would get up in the morning and my clothes would fit. When I came back from court, it seemed they were all falling off me because I lost five pounds in just that courtroom.” But Lewis didn’t let the exhaustion faze him. “I would have to get up the next morning and get right back to it, you know? I couldn’t let them beat me down.”
While Lewis was representing himself in court alone, he would be forced to keep on his khaki jumpsuit and shackles. “Let’s just say that this is my legal box,” said Lewis, pretending to lift up an imaginary object in front of me.
“So, I’m literally in court, walking to the bench like this,” he explained, taking tiny steps in front of me with both his feet and wrists connected as if they were tied. “I’d be shoving papers like this,” he said, miming a convoluted page-turning motion. “You’re literally in the trenches. The reason they do this is they want you to give up. They want you to be humiliated.”
Still, Lewis refused to let the ordeal anger him.
“If I was just so angry, I would have been so consumed. That wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere,” he reflected. “I would have just been another mad, black guy in prison for something that he didn’t do.”
He spoke about how intimidated he felt in the courtroom, surrounded by lawyers and judges with law school training and decades of experience.
While some say, “A man who represents himself has a fool for a client,” Lewis does not agree. “‘A man who doesn’t stand up for himself is a fool. Period,” he told me.
For a source of resilience, Lewis looked to his family: He did not want his four children, all of whom were under the age of seven at the time of his arrest, to grow up with people who thought that their father was a murderer. He did not want people to think that his mother raised someone capable of doing these horrible things. And he looked to the families of the victims. He thought they would want the right person to be convicted.
Lewis’ legal work paid off. According to a U.S. District Court ruling in 2013, Lewis’ original defense had been improperly denied access to exculpatory evidence. Testimony from New Haven Police Department Detective Michael Sweeney suggested that NHPD Detective Vincent Raucci Jr. had obtained false statements from Ovil Ruiz, the key witness for the prosecution in the initial trial. During his interview, Ruiz had at first said he had no knowledge of the murders. But Sweeney witnessed Raucci inappropriately give important details about the case, after which Ruiz changed his version of the events to one that implicated Lewis.
After ten years of representing himself, in 2009, Lewis finally received assistance. Brett Dignam, a Yale Law professor at the time, took on his case pro bono.
“The Law Clinic, as you might imagine, looks for interesting and complicated cases,” Dignam said in an interview with The Politic. Lewis’ case was just that.
“I think at one point, [Dignam] was hesitant to take it, because the success rate seemed to be very low,” Lewis said. “And the thing about Brett is that she doesn’t take cases that she doesn’t believe in. And she doesn’t take cases that she doesn’t think she can win.”
The clinic initially struggled to piece together Scott Lewis’ conviction. Some documents had been misplaced because they got attached to past pleadings. To compensate for this lack of accessible evidence, Yale law students visited different courthouses, looking at as many of the original files surrounding the case as they could.
The missing documents marked the beginning of many challenges: The first judge reassigned the case to another judge; the State asked for multiple extensions; and all attempts by the court to prolong the trial were opposed by the Clinic. Lewis’ case had been pending for six years, and his team felt that it needed to move forward.
The case was helped by a 22-month-long FBI investigation, which began in 1995, that tied Detective Raucci to cocaine trafficking in New Haven. Soon after the internal investigation suggested that he was corrupt, Raucci retired from the police force. He was later arrested in New Mexico on an unrelated larceny charge after a standoff with the police.
An initial hearing was held in New Haven in 2011. By this time, Brett Dignam had left Yale to teach at Columbia Law School. She simultaneously led a Columbia Law Clinic working to understand the case’s record and supervised four of her third-year Yale Law students on Mondays and Fridays who were conducting a further factual investigation.
Following Dignam’s departure for Columbia, Emily Washington, one of the four remaining Yale Law students working on the case with Dignam, said, “We basically started our own sort of clinic, that was essentially the ‘Free Scott Lewis Clinic.’ It did not have that title,” she said, laughing. “But that was essentially what it was.”
Washington and another recent Yale Law graduate, Anjali Srinivasan, came back from their jobs in October of 2011 to argue the procedural motions in New Haven District Court for over three hours. Lewis and the team won the claim that the prosecution had failed to disclose evidence that Ruiz’s testimony was not reliable. But Lewis’ legal team had still not proven his innocence.
In 2013, a team of eight Columbia students presented evidence on Lewis’ habeas claims before Judge Charles Haight.
Dignam recalled, “One of the students, as we came out of the procedural motion, said ‘So, is that the best case I’m ever going to have in my life?’ And I said ‘Well…yeah, probably.’”
Scott Lewis, then 48 years old, was released in February of 2014 on bail. A year later, his charges were dismissed. The state appealed the case, and everyone returned for the appellate argument in 2015, which Lewis’ team won. In August 2015, the State of Connecticut formally dropped all charges against him. Lewis had won.
“That is a very, very hard claim to win. It is a very high standard,” Dignam said. “But [proving his innocence] was super important to him.”
Dignam attributes much of the victory’s credit to Lewis. “He remained optimistic throughout, he never gave up, he really believed in himself and in us,” she said. “And that made a huge difference.
Despite his ordeal, Lewis is still an optimistic person. “I don’t think that all police officers are bad. There are just some that give a bad name to the system.”
When he was first released, Lewis had to wear an ankle bracelet that tracked his location for fifteen months. “I felt like a robot,” he admitted.
“But, I looked at the ankle bracelet and said, ‘Well, at least they know where I’m at all the time. I ain’t gotta be worried about being falsely accused again,’” Lewis laughed. For this reason, he chooses to keep a location tracker on his phone to this day.
Prior to going to jail, he was getting ready to take the state exam to become a real estate agent. This year, more than two decades after his arrest, Lewis has “picked up right where [he] left off.” He passed the real estate exam and has his real estate license. He wants to encourage property ownership among the less fortunate. Lewis is now a broker of his own company, where the motto is, “Dedicated. Skilled Reliable. And we’re just getting started.”
In more ways than one, Lewis’ new life is just getting started, too.
He is now married to one of his old friends, Rachel, and they live together with their daughter, Harper Rose, who is almost two years old. Lewis smiled, “And the rest is history.”