Preparing Boys for Life

Philadelphia’s ninth exoneree speaks at Haverford along with Assistant District Attorney Brett Zakeosian ’06

On Oct. 10, Upper School students heard from Terrance Lewis, a man formerly incarcerated after a wrongful conviction for second degree murder – which carries an automatic life sentence without parole – and Brett Zakeosian ’06, an Assistant District Attorney who works in the Conviction Integrity and Special Investigations Unit of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. His team worked on Lewis’s case. Lewis was exonerated and released on May 21, 2019 after serving 21-and-a-half years in prison. 

If we don’t have confidence beyond a reasonable doubt, if we can’t point to someone and say “you did this,” then we need to take a harder look. We need it because people are wrongfully convicted. Brett Zakeosian ’06

Zakeosian and his unit work to ensure conviction integrity and exonerate individuals who either were falsely accused or who received a disproportionate sentence for their crime. Zakeosian noted that many individuals are wrongfully convicted due to improper or incorrect evidence, misidentification by an eyewitness, weapon bias, biased informants, or inaccurate DNA testing. His unit gives all stakeholders the ability to go back and look at convictions that may have been wrong. 

“If we don’t have confidence beyond a reasonable doubt, if we can’t point to someone and say “you did this,” then we need to take a harder look,” he said. “We need it because people are wrongfully convicted.”

Lewis was convicted at the age of 17 and went through a 19-year appellate process. His appeals were denied in 2000, 2002, 2005, and 2006. In 2009 a federal judge said he might actually be innocent, but that there was a procedural issue that kept them from pursuing the matter further. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama, stating that giving a life sentence to a juvenile offender is unconstitutional. He filed another PCRA (Post-Conviction Relief Act) petition to be re-sentenced as a result of the 2012 ruling. In 2018 he struck a deal: 20 years-to-life, but he would be eligible for parole.

“In 2019 our unit goes to a hearing and we’re expecting Mr. Lewis to be re-sentenced,” recalled Zakeosian. “But the judge decided that Mr. Lewis’ due process rights were violated.” It was revealed that one of the witnesses was not referring to Terrance Lewis when she mentioned a nickname during questioning. This was in the detective’s notes, but the defense never received those notes, so they never had a chance to present it in court. The judge exonerated him on the spot.

When I got off the bus at the age of 17 – 19, because I stayed in a county jail for two years fighting the case – I immediately picked up my education. Unfortunately for me, I had to settle for a GED because my life was uprooted. But I didn’t stop there – I saved up my pennies – literally my pennies, because unfortunately for me, I was working for 19 cents an hour. In order to get a bag of potato chips or buy deodorant, I had to work two days, still fighting for my life. And I knew I didn’t commit that crime. So I did what any man – any desperate child – would do: I got busy. I fought for my life. I [didn’t] want to die in jail. And despite me doing 21-and-a-half-years, I’m blessed and I’m grateful. I’m grateful for life. Terrance Lewis

Lewis earned a GED in prison and spent hours in the law library, learning about the criminal justice process and eventually securing his freedom. “I was up against a whole entity … it was the whole Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against poor old me, and then my superhero came.” 

Lewis had the help of a pro-bono attorney, who he referred to as his superhero, who fought on his behalf for 10 years. Lewis called upon the students asking if there were any superheroes in the room who would stand up on the right side of justice. 

“He was relentless,” recalls Lewis. “He said, “I got your back, I believe in you.” He modified his life, because it wasn’t a job for him – it was his way of life. This is the message I want to give y’all … showing you tenacity and perseverance. I want to show you what hard work gets you. Because there are other individuals in similar situations. I feel as though I’m a man of honor, and I think I am mandated – I’m obligated – to blow the whistle.”

After all he’s been through, Lewis remains grateful.

“I came from where I came from – the inner city, that was my reality,” he said. “I didn’t have what other individuals had but I had what I had, and I had structure and I knew discipline. When I got off the bus at the age of 17 – 19, because I stayed in a county jail for two years fighting the case – I immediately picked up my education. Unfortunately for me, I had to settle for a GED because my life was uprooted. But I didn’t stop there – I saved up my pennies – literally my pennies, because unfortunately for me, I was working for 19 cents an hour. In order to get a bag of potato chips or buy deodorant, I had to work two days, still fighting for my life. And I knew I didn’t commit that crime. So I did what any man – any desperate child – would do: I got busy. I fought for my life. I [didn’t] want to die in jail. And despite me doing 21-and-a-half-years, I’m blessed and I’m grateful. I’m grateful for life.”

Lewis now serves as a legal consultant for the District Attorney’s Office and travels around the country to share his story. He is also an outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania chapter of It Could Happen to You, an organization that aims to bring about change to prevent wrongful convictions.