Derris Lewis, running uncharacteristically late, slipped quietly into the last open seat in the front pew. And as the first notes from the choir director’s keyboard filled the sanctuary of the Greater Mount Moriah Primitive Baptist Church, he closed his eyes and swayed to the hymn.
The tension drained from Derris’ slight frame as he lost himself in the words he sang: Whatever You do for me, however things turn out to be, as long as You’re in control, I know things will work out for me. Your troubles and trials only come to make you strong.
Singing tenor with the Christopher Ervin & Abraham’s Descendants traveling community choir has been his saving grace. The choir’s friendships sustain him, its music soothes him, its sanctity cleanses his soul.
“It feeds me spiritually,” said the 29-year-old foster-care social worker for the Department of Youth and Family Services for Mecklenburg County in Charlotte. “And singing makes me happy.”
And those are all things he sought after he left Columbus in his rearview mirror in 2014, one month after earning his bachelor’s degree from Ohio State University and six years after everything he knew and understood about life imploded with a single gunshot inside his family’s North Linden home.
It was about 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 18, 2008, when intruders broke in to the Loretta Avenue house where April Lewis had most recently raised her twin 17-year-old sons, Dennis and Derris.
They held April, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, at gunpoint on the living room couch and ransacked the home. (The defense attorneys say a cousin who sometimes stayed there was believed to be selling drugs.)
Derris, who along with his brother was in his senior year at Columbus East High School, had moved out a month before because of that cousin. Dennis, however, was home that night. The intruders busted in his bedroom door and, the crime-scene evidence showed, he engaged them in a brutal and bloody fight for his life.
He lost. A bullet pierced vital organs.
It was a crime that rocked the community not once, but twice. First, Dennis’ death was a shock because the Lewis boys seemingly had everything going for them despite growing up in impoverished and gang-ridden neighborhoods that too often steal more from youth than they ever give back. Both teens were churchgoing honor students, athletes, musicians, standout members of the marching band. They each had perfect attendance at school and bagged groceries together at a Giant Eagle.
Though 17 at the time, Derris was charged as an adult with aggravated murder and related charges. He always maintained his innocence, and he took the case to trial. Covered live every day by Court TV in March 2009, the trial made Derris a national cause celebre or a pariah, depending on who you believed he was: a falsely imprisoned man wrongly accused of killing his twin, or a heartless killer of his brother.
In the end, a juror was dismissed just as deliberations began and Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge Guy L. Reece II declared a mistrial. Derris stayed in jail as prosecutors planned to try him again.
Then came the bombshell.
His defense team tested the evidence. It turned out there was no bloody palm print. The blood on the wall had fingerprints, and they belonged to Dennis. The handprint, which was not in blood, was above it. The only evidence that prosecutors and Columbus Police homicide detectives said linked Derris to the crime didn’t exist.
On Aug. 6, 2009, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien dismissed all the charges and said publicly that Derris was no longer a suspect. At 1:30 p.m. a decade ago today, Derris walked out of the Franklin County Jail and into the arms of his sobbing relatives. The city later paid him $950,000, but he said he never really received the public apologies he was looking for.
As the 10-year anniversary of his freedom approached, Derris, now 29 with a master’s degree and working on his doctorate, reflected on all that he’s been through.
“Things are going to happen to you. It’s how you recover from them that matters,” he says. “I wasn’t built to break.”
The tidy two-story home that Derris rents in a quiet Charlotte neighborhood is calm and inviting — muted earth tones cover the walls that Derris painted himself, the lights are always dim, the scent from mahogany coconut candles fills the air, and inspirational sayings make up nearly every part of the decor. Dream big. Live simply. Be grateful. Give love. Laugh lots.
The chaos of his incarceration was difficult to shed. He uses paper towels to open doorknobs and is obsessive about cleaning surfaces, especially mirrors. He immediately notices if anything is out of place at home or in his office. He had to give up a job as a substance-abuse counselor because the frequent trips to the county jail — and hearing the bars clang shut behind him — were triggering. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder from the ordeal, but his faith and therapy have gotten him through even the darkest of times.
After his release, he bought a 9 mm handgun for protection. His brother’s killer still hasn’t been caught; the case rests with the cold-case homicide unit of the Columbus Division of Police. But about three years later, he picked that gun up in the middle of one night and turned it on himself.
“I woke up and was like, ‘I don’t want to be here anymore,’” he recalled. “Everything had started to pile up.”
At 2:13 a.m., as he sat alone with that gun to his head, his former high school band director called. He had been on her heart, Martha Hal told him, and she wanted to know if he was OK.
That was a turning point. Derris decided then to live the best life he could.
“Derris strives for perfection,” said Shelby Stewart, his supervisor at work. “He literally lives his life one day at a time, a testament to God.”
She didn’t know the Lewis family story until just a few weeks ago. At the end of a long day handling emotional cases, Derris turned to her: There’s something I want to tell you.
She immediately ordered a copy of Derris’ book, “Twin,” as she tried to process it all.
“It was 24 hours of constant sobbing, realizing what this man I know has been through,” Stewart said. “But suddenly, it all made sense to me — his work, his passion, his drive. He’s keeping his promise not only to himself but to his brother, his promise that ‘We’re going to get through this.’”
‘I see my brother every day’
Attorney Adam Nemann doesn’t give his personal cellphone number to clients. He doesn’t invite them to his home for dinner. He doesn’t stay in touch with them a decade later. But from the moment he met Derris Lewis, Nemann said, he knew he was no ordinary client.
And he never once doubted Derris’ innocence.
“It just didn’t make any sense whatsoever,” Nemann said of the criminal case. “There was little to no evidence that either one of these boys had been any trouble. They were best friends. These were two individuals destined for greatness.”
The men have become friends and stay in touch, united in their commitment to solve Dennis’ murder and bring the killers to justice.
Even now, after all this time, it can be difficult for Derris to speak of his brother.
“I never wanted to throw this pity party, this woe is me,” Derris said. “But that wasn’t just my brother; that was my twin. I look in the mirror every day. I see my brother every day.”
For years after his brother died, Derris immersed himself in college and devoted himself to caring for his mother. Eventually, though he didn’t want to leave her, he knew it was time to move on.
April Lewis told her son that she understood why he had to start fresh, so he left in 2014 for Charlotte, a city where he knew no one.
He loves it here, he said, but admits to still being unsettled at times: He has moved eight times and has held several jobs, all in the social-services field.
The meaningful work of his career fulfills him, the time spent with the choir brings him joy, and he often can be found taking home-cooked meals to the men’s shelter just up the street.
“Derris just likes to be happy, he likes to be smiling and he likes to make other people smile,” said 28-year-old Carl Dowdell, his best friend. “He uses his faith as a flotation device when he’s drowning and life gets rough. He keeps steady by looking at where he’s at now, not what’s behind him. He is an inspiration to everyone.”
Never is his twin far from his mind. Tattoos on both arms and one hand pay homage to Dennis, and Derris draws comfort in knowing that his brother is always with him. Though the boys were best friends, they had opposite personalities. Dennis was the extrovert, a gotta-have-it-now, fun-loving one. Derris was quiet and shy, the patient one.
But now? He’s grown into himself, he said. Or more like he’s grown into his brother.
“I always say I took on my brother’s spirit,” he said. “I was happy inside, but I was quiet. Now I try to be happy on the outside, too.”
His mother died in October at the age of 58. He has an older brother, a sister, nieces and nephews, all of whom he loves. But he doesn’t think he’ll ever return to Columbus. Too much pain, too much sorrow, too much history.
He doesn’t know how long he’ll stay in Charlotte or where he might eventually settle. He just got his first passport and hopes to travel someday. Once he earns his doctorate, he thinks maybe he will teach. One thing he knows for certain: He will always devote himself to solving his brother’s murder. But he is happy, content, proud of all he’s accomplished.
At practice last week, he shared his and Dennis’s story with the choir. They responded with “We love yous” and “Amens.”
And then they sang: There is no failure, no failure. Oh, there’s never been a time in my life He let me fall. There’s never been a time He did not answer my call. There is no failure.
Derris closed his eyes and lost himself in the music.