Lewis survived jail with patience, hope

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Derris Lewis

Every dream, he wrote down.

Derris Lewis filled notebook after notebook as he waited for the day when he would again feel her trembling hands on his face.

This is a young man who loves his mother so much, his sister said, that he sat before her wheelchair and soaked her feet on the night he finally came home.

For 18 months, Lewis had seen his family mainly through the thick glass of a jail visiting room. He longed to touch and to be touched.

The dream he had last Monday told him it was almost time, he said.

"God said, 'Shhhh,'Â Â " Lewis said. "It was like he was saying, 'Just be still and let me do this.'Â Â "

Lewis, 19, scribbled the vision in his journal while it was still fresh and resumed his wait, more hopeful than ever.

Maybe someday the stack of notebooks will grow into a real book, he said. For now, they are a private, packed-away account of how the young man endured the loss of more than a year of his life while his family and legal team fought charges that he shot and killed his twin brother, Dennis, in January 2008.

Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien dropped the case against Lewis last week after acknowledging that a "bloody palm print" had not been left in blood, as Columbus police detectives said.

Lewis was released from the Franklin County jail on Thursday.

He had spent his 18th and 19th birthdays behind bars, missed most of his senior year at East High School and, for Christmas, had his family bring in photographs of food and presents.

Fascinated by the candidacy of Barack Obama, Lewis was frustrated that he could neither follow the campaign nor vote. He read Obama's book The Audacity of Hope instead.

And he developed a daily ritual to calm his fears.

"There was a table, one of those big metal tables bolted to the floor in a rec area," he said. "I would climb up. I would stand on top of the table, look out the window past the bars and pray."

No one ever bothered him then, he said.

Diane Lewis, the twins' older sister, said Derris remained brave. But that doesn't mean he wasn't scared sometimes.

"He was just a kid," she said.

When Derris Lewis was first taken away, he didn't even understand how jail worked. He thought his family could come and wash his clothes.
He wasn't a bad guy, he kept saying. He and Dennis were good students who worked hard at East, marched in the band and earned college-scholarship offers. Killing his twin would be like killing himself, Derris Lewis said.

"He kept saying, 'Why? Why is this happening to us? Have we done something horrible?'Â Â " Diane Lewis remembered.

She told him that police were too quick to believe something bad about a poor family in a rough neighborhood.

"Why? Because that's what they're used to," Diane Lewis said. "But this family doesn't lie. They interrogated the hell out of him, but he never changed."

Derris Lewis said investigators tried to make him out to be the bad twin. "And they gave me the good-cop/bad-cop routine as well," he said.

Robert McClendon, a Columbus man who served 18 years in prison until DNA testing cleared him of rape charges, met Derris Lewis and congratulated him last week.

Walking out of jail is one thing, McClendon said. It's harder to wrangle free of suspicions.

"There always are people who look at you and wonder," he said.

The Lewises want explanations and apologies from police and prosecutors, but they say they won't let anger chew away their joy.

"To get to heaven, you have to forgive," said the twins' mother, April.

Derris Lewis said he wants to get on a plane soon and take a vacation. "I'd just like to fly somewhere," he said.

After that, there will be college. "I lost my freedom and my education, and those are the most important things I have as a citizen," he said.

They aren't the only things he needs. During a news conference last week, Derris Lewis sat strong and tall as he faced a roomful of reporters and dozens of questions.

Under the table, out of the cameras' eye, he touched his mother's hands.

"What can we do without each other?" April Lewis whispered.

"Nothing," her son answered. "Nothing."