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Cleveland man sentenced to 35 years in city's deadliest arson

By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A Cleveland man was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Friday for setting a fire that killed nine people, including eight children, the deadliest arson in the city's history.

Antun Lewis, 30, used gasoline to set the May 2005 fire that killed Medeia Carter, 33, and eight children, aged 7 to 15, who were attending a birthday sleepover at her house, prosecutors said.

Lewis was first convicted in 2011 of arson, but had been granted a new trial by U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., who found that prosecutors relied too heavily on unreliable witnesses in the earlier trial, including jailhouse informants. Lewis was convicted again in a second trial in December. Oliver had ruled that Lewis' IQ was too low for him to face the death penalty.

During the nearly four-hour sentencing hearing, Oliver heard statements from some of the victims’ grandparents and from Cleveland Fire Department Battalion Chief Patrick Mangan, who wept as he described trying to rescue the children from the blaze.

"I arrived in hell that night," said Mangan, who recalled the victims' burns in graphic detail and called Lewis a "mass murderer."

Prosecutors had sought life in prison for the crime while the defense had argued for 20 years. Lewis has denied that he set the fire.

Some family members left the courtroom visibly upset over the sentence, saying that it should have been longer.

Oliver called the case the hardest in his 20 years on the bench. He said he believed that Lewis would not be a danger to the community after his sentence because the likeliness of recidivism decreases with age.

(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Will Dunham, Bill Trott and Jim Loney)

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