Everybody said Derris Lewis was a good kid. But on Jan. 18, 2008, everything began to change.

That day, masked men broke into the home of Derris and his twin brother Dennis in the Linden Park area of Columbus. Dennis was shot and killed. And his brother, by all accounts, was devastated.

According to family, the two boys were best friends, and after Dennis died his brother acted like it. He served as a spokesman for the family, kept going to school, spoke to students and teachers. He sang at his brother’s funeral and served as a pall bearer.

Everybody said Derris Lewis was  a good kid. He was a good student, one of those success stories that every parent would love to claim for their own.  He was a member of the National Honor Society and his high school’s "Tiger Tech" robotics team. Both boys were active in their high school band; Dennis played the sousaphone and Derris served as drum major. Derris had an academic scholarship offer from Ohio State University and looked forward to going to college.

Everybody said he was a good kid, so friends and family were shocked when police uncovered a handprint on a bloody wall near where Dennis was murdered. Turned out it was Derris’s print.

To the dismay and disbelief of those who knew him, Derris was arrested on a murder charge and thrown into the Franklin County Jail, where he remained until Thursday. On that day — after 18 months — he walked out a free man.

You see, the police investigators had done their work. But they had not done it thoroughly. And somewhere along the line, somebody screwed up. The evidence, or lack thereof, was present all along.

There was a bloody wall. There was a handprint on the wall. The handprint was Derris’s handprint. Case closed, right?

The murder charge might have stuck if it hadn’t been for Derris’s defense attorney, who hired two retired police detectives to dig deeper into the evidence — and the prosecutor’s office, which hired a former Columbus fingerprint expert to assist.

The initial investigation assumed a bloody handprint because the print was on the wall next to the blood. But the forensic investigators never got together to determine exactly how the print was made.

Now, they say, the print could have been there a long time. It could have been from a greasy hamburger. It could have been from a sweaty palm. But it was not made of blood.

The Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office and the Columbus Police Department both issued statements on Thursday agreeing that charges should be dismissed. It seems unlikely that new evidence will point to fratricide, and the search now goes on to determined who actually killed Dennis Lewis.

It’s hard to know what to feel when something like this happens. On the one hand, it gives hope that American justice will out and that the truth will prevail.

And yet, I can’t help wondering how many cases there have been in which a defense attorney was not so diligent and in which prosecutors were more intent on conviction than in finding the truth.

I can’t help wondering what would have happened if Derris Lewis had been convicted. Would private investigators have kept searching? Would Derris  be a free man today?

And I can’t help wondering what it would be like if one of my sons were charged with a crime he didn’t commit. Would I go to my grave a bitter man, or would I find some way deep down to forgive?

Maybe when it’s all said and done, all we can do is thank God that things turned out as they did. And pray that no one has to go through what this particular family has endured.

Everybody said Derris Lewis was a good kid. Turns out they were right.

Adam Lee Nemann
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Trial and Defense Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Capital University, founder of Nemann Law Offices
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