Philly judge sets wrongfully convicted man free after 21 years in prison

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania -- Lawyers say something happened at the Criminal Justice Center that neither they nor their client, or for that matter the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, was expecting.

Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott, known for her toughness, ruled that a man had been wrongfully convicted and set him free.

It's a decision that both the district attorney's office and the homicide victim's family agree with after work by his tenacious lawyers showed hard evidence of his innocence.

Terrance Lewis, 40, hugged and kissed his parents and 21-year-old son a day after the judge threw out his conviction for a 1996 West Philadelphia murder.

For 21 years he had been fighting to be exonerated of the crime, but nobody in the court system would listen until Judge McDermott took the time to examine new evidence and threw out his conviction.

"I was stunned, I was shocked, I was amazed and I was humbled," said Lewis.

Lewis was only 17 when he, a wrongly convicted juvenile lifer, was sent to prison.

But at that moment, when the judge threw out the conviction 21 years later, he says it was like a whole bottle of years and years of emotion began pouring out.

"It's still pouring," he said chuckling. "It's still pouring out, going before Judge McDermott, I thanked her, she's a leading light of that bench."

Attorney David Laigaie stuck with Lewis pro bono for 10 years because he strongly believed in his innocence.

Laigaie says he is not disheartened it took this long to get his client freed.

"No, I'm encouraged. At the end of the day, a right has come to pass; it took longer than we would hoped, but at least we got to this point," said Laigaie.

Attorney Kevin Harden who grew up in the same neighborhood as Lewis and knows how easily innocent men can fall into traps also worked on the case for five years and he doesn't normally do homicide cases.

"Representing Terrance has been the biggest privilege and dream of my life. And now hopefully, Terrance will have the opportunity to live every privilege and dream he has for his life," said Harden.

Lewis' son, Zahaire, wasn't even born when he was sent to prison. He's now 21. Clearly he has a lot of catching up to do, but first, he needs to get back on his feet.

"So I have started a GoFundMe page, hoping to get assistance to help me get back on my feet cause the reality is I'm practically homeless," said Lewis.

The rest of his life is a work in progress.

For starters, Lewis is now hoping to go back to school and work on getting a commercial driver's license.
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