Terrance Lewis survived 21 years of wrongful incarceration, and somehow did so with grace. He is humble, kind and hardworking, and he is a passionate and courageous advocate. As a teenager, Terrance was arrested for a crime that occurred when he was 17 years old; a year later, he was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, without the possibility of ever coming home. Throughout that time, Terrance maintained his innocence.
May 2019: Terrance Lewis, right, with his son Zahaire in West Philadelphia, left, on the day Terrance came home from prison after 21 years of wrongful incarceration.
Terrance grew up in deep poverty, and moved frequently throughout his childhood, attending nine different elementary schools in just three years. By his sophomore year of high school, Terrance had dropped out and was working full-time to support himself and his mother and siblings. In 1997, when Terrance was 18, his girlfriend told Terrance she was pregnant with their child. He says he had “a smile as wide as my face,” and he picked her up and spun her around. He went with her to every doctor’s appointment, hoping the baby would be a boy.
On December 17, 1997, Terrance was arrested, over a year after the crime occurred. One month later, his son Zahaire was born. Terrance had never been arrested before, and by the time his 1998 trial was held, he had only met with his attorney twice. At trial, Terrance was convicted almost entirely based on the testimony of one eye witness who admitted that she was high on crack cocaine at the time. He was sentenced almost immediately after his trial to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Terrance maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration as a teenager entering adult prison. Terrance took advantage of the limited opportunities made available to him in prison, due to his status as a “lifer,” and sought out multiple opportunities to learn and grow. He was a determined student, earning his GED in 2001 as well as his Paralegal Diploma, in addition to holding various jobs, during his incarceration.
Yet, for nearly two decades, Terrance pursued his innocence, filing post-conviction petitions challenging his sentence that wound their way through the courts. In 2010, a U.S. Magistrate judge found Terrance to be “very likely innocent,” but denied his petition due to procedural issues.
The 2016 U.S. Supreme Court’s Montgomery v. Louisiana ruling — which made retroactive the Court’s earlier ruling in Miller v. Alabama (2012) that mandatorily sentencing children to life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional — provided Terrance with a different path to life outside of prison. YSRP began working with Terrance in 2017 in pursuit of his freedom, and began preparing for his hearing in front of a judge who would, hopefully, offer Terrance a new sentence of time served, with an opportunity to be released by the Parole Board to serve the remainder of his life sentence at home.
Through our work together, we learned that Terrance was a constant source of support for his loved ones, and remained close to them in spite of the barriers of expensive phone calls to/from prison, and visits. Everyone surrounding Terrance, whether family members, or friends he grew up with, or men incarcerated alongside him, turned to him for his wise guidance and perspective, and sought him ought for reassurance when facing any number of struggles.
Terrance’s son Zahaire, born one month after Terrance was arrested, had not known his father outside of prison walls. Although he physically was not present for Zahaire’s first steps, or holidays, or his high school graduation, Terrance never missed a single one of Zahaire’s birthdays, sending cards and gifts. Zahaire still has a box full of mementos that his father sent him over the years. Terrance and his son built a bond that was strengthened through phone calls several times each week, and visits.
Over the course of two years, YSRP built, with Terrance, a comprehensive mitigation report that described the difficult circumstances Terrance navigated in his childhood; his arrest and incarceration at such a young age; and the incredible steps Terrance took to enrich himself and build a meaningful life in prison. In partnership with Terrance’s dedicated legal team, including pro bono counsel David Laigaie of Eckert Seamans, and Kevin Harden, Jr. of Ross Feller Casey LLP, YSRP stood by Terrance’s side as he weighed the excruciating decision of whether to forfeit another pending innocence petition in favor of pursuing a resentencing hearing, which a Philadelphia judge ruled was necessary in order to make way for a resentencing hearing to take place. Terrance opted to move forward with his resentencing hearing, and YSRP worked closely with Terrance in that time to prepare an actionable plan for his eventual and hoped-for release from prison after decades.
At his May 22, 2019 resentencing hearing, Terrance was elated, and stunned, when Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Barbara McDermott vacated his conviction instead of giving him a new sentence. She reviewed his innocence claim on the spot, finding that due process had been denied. The next day, after more than 21 years of incarceration, Terrance left the State Correctional Institution at Chester as a free man. At 41 years old, Terrance is finally the father to Zahaire, now 21 and soon to complete his college education, he always sought to be — present, and by his side.
The Inquirer profiled Terrance’s return home in this beautiful article and photo essay. We are so proud to witness and share in Terrance’s homecoming, and know that Terrance’s compassion, stoicism and brilliance position him for greatness in this world.