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Cleveland man found guilty in city's deadliest house fire

By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A Cleveland man accused of setting the city's deadliest house fire, which killed eight children and a woman, was found guilty by a jury on Friday, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office said.

Antun Lewis, 29, was convicted of arson and faces up to life in prison when he is sentenced in March, said Mike Tobin, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney in Cleveland.

Lewis had been convicted two years ago of arson, but was granted a new trial by a federal judge who found that prosecutors relied too heavily on unreliable witnesses in the earlier trial, including jail house informants.

Lewis' new trial began in November before U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. and was turned over to the jury late on Thursday. Oliver previously ruled that the defendant's IQ was too low for him to be eligible for the death penalty.

Lewis was accused of using gasoline to set a fire that killed Medeia Carter and eight children, aged 7 to 14, who were attending a birthday sleepover at her house in 2005.

The case was prosecuted in federal court because Carter was receiving federal housing assistance to pay for her home.

Prosecutors presented the testimony of jail house informants who said Lewis admitted to setting the fire because of a grudge he had with someone he thought was in the house.

Prosecutors said in closing arguments that a witness saw Lewis buy gasoline and enter Carter's house through a side door minutes before authorities received the report of a fire.

Phone records placed Lewis in the area at the time of the fire and he changed his explanation of his whereabouts that night several times, prosecutors said.

Defense attorneys conceded that Lewis bought $5 of gasoline shortly before the fire, but said Lewis lived a few streets away and it was not unusual for him to be in the area.

In his closing argument, Lewis's attorney, Angelo Lonardo, told jurors on Thursday it did not make sense that Lewis would burn down a house when his 12-year-old sister, one of the victims, was inside.

He also urged jurors not to believe the testimony of "career criminals" and "con men" presented by prosecutors.

Lewis is scheduled to be sentenced on March 18.

(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by David Bailey, Chris Reese, Andrew Hay and Richard Chang)

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