Content warning: This story includes an account of rape that may be upsetting to readers.
Fritz Lewis knows his brother, George, still thinks about being found guilty of rape decades ago.
A federal judge overturned Lewis’ conviction after he’d spent three years in prison. He was set free, and his name was cleared.
But it wasn’t the end of his sentence.
George developed dementia early in life. And Fritz said he can hear in his brother’s words that he’s still trying to prove himself.
Because every time George talks to someone, he starts by repeating one phrase.
“I’m a good boy. I’m a good boy.”
In August 1988, a white woman was raped in north Minneapolis. She was walking home from a bar, when two men pulled her into a car. She said they took turns assaulting her, driving around for hours.
She told police it was two Black men, but didn’t have much of a description beyond that.
About a week later, in the same neighborhood, she saw George Lewis and Lovell Carter at a bar.
The woman pointed them out to a police officer, saying she believed they were the men who had raped her.
She told police she scratched the face of one of the men. Lovell Carter had a scratch on his face. He and George were Black. The criminal complaint says they were apprehended on the spot.
“We were trying to figure out why he was in jail and they were telling us that he was picked up for rape,” said Johnnie Mae Lewis, George’s sister.
She got a call saying George had been arrested with Lovell, his fiancée's brother. George was 28 at the time, and had just moved to Minneapolis from Mississippi a few months before. Johnnie Mae and her brother, Fritz, still lived in Mississippi.
Johnnie Mae went up to Minnesota and tried to talk to the police, but didn’t know the procedures or any of the ins and outs of the criminal justice system there. She and George’s fiancée, Geraldine, could only talk to him on the phone.
“He kept telling us he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it,” Johnnie Mae said.
George’s brother, Fritz, said George had gotten into some trouble in Mississippi, committing theft with a group of other guys. But nothing like this.
“He was coming to Minnesota, like I hear many people say that they do, looking for a better life,” Fritz said.
George went to trial and the woman identified him in the courtroom. She said she was sure he and Lovell had raped her. Throughout the trial, the woman talked about George and Lovell together, as a pair.
The jury found George guilty on Nov. 1, 1988.
A month later, Lovell Carter went to trial. This time, the woman was in the courtroom again. As the attorneys were getting ready to give opening statements, she broke down crying. She recanted, saying she did not recognize Lovell.
The prosecutor, Patrice Eddy, made a motion to dismiss the charges right away, and the judge granted it.
Lovell was free.
‘They didn’t work like that’
George heard about what happened from prison. He called his family and told them Lovell was getting out.
George’s family thought that meant he would be next.
“We’re like OK, OK, that’s good,” Johnnie Mae said. “If she couldn’t identify Lovell and they were both together, George should be able to come home. But no, they didn’t work like that.”
Because George had already been convicted, he was on a totally different playing field. His attorney filed a motion for a new trial based on new evidence. There was a hearing with the judge, about a month after George’s conviction.
At that hearing, George’s attorney argued that since the victim identified George and Lovell as a pair, and had now taken back her identification of Lovell, George should get a new trial. The jury could hear this new evidence and then decide if George should still be found guilty.
Patrice Eddy prosecuted both George and Lovell. While she had agreed to drop the charges against Lovell, she doubled down on George.
She said she dismissed Lovell’s case because she was no longer able to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Certainly a mistake was made, she said. But did the victim make that mistake when she identified the men in the bar? Or did she make it later in the courtroom, when she recanted? “We probably will never know,” Eddy told the judge.
She argued that George should stay in prison and not get a new trial. And the judge agreed with her.
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At this type of hearing, the judge had to rule not only on whether there was new evidence, but also whether it was likely that it would have caused a different result at George’s trial. The judge said he was “unable at this time” to rule that it would, because of “all of the evidence that was offered and all of the testimony that was offered.”
That statement became important over the years that followed, as other courts backed up the judge’s decision.
And Patrice Eddy wasn’t finished with George. At that hearing, she said not only should George stay in prison, but his sentence should be doubled because of the severity of the crime. The judge approved the upward departure. Instead of six years, he was sentenced to 12.
‘All of the evidence’
George appealed that first judge’s decision, and he was denied. But not just denied. When the appeals court looked at what happened with the victim and her recantation, they said if anything, maybe her recantation might enhance the prosecution’s case by suggesting that she “is careful and will not identify anyone unless she is sure of their identification.”
That reasoning kept getting repeated by other courts, too. Retired defense attorney Doug Peine said that’s because during the appeals process, judges try to go in with the mindset that the previous court probably got it right.
“In the law, at the appellate stage, the benefit of doubt is always going to go to the lower court,” he said.
When George was in prison in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Peine was an attorney handling appeals, civil cases and criminal cases. He was on a rotation for pro bono work for the federal public defender’s office. He would take cases once in a while for clients who couldn’t pay, like George Lewis.
Peine didn’t take the case until George was on his final try at the federal level.
“You take a case like that, you say ‘Well, five courts have reviewed it already. The odds that somebody missed something are pretty slim,’” Peine said. “You know, generally, I think the courts and prosecutors and defense attorneys generally get it right. And for it to be missed by that many courts, it's unlikely.”
He said he was not optimistic that he’d win an appeal at this level when he first took on George’s case.
“So you get the case and you get the trial record and you start reading, and you are skeptical just by nature and by your experience,” he said. “And then things start to fall one thing at a time. You begin to see, ‘Well, what?’ And then you don't believe it until you've gone through the whole thing and then sat back and said, ‘Wow. I think I'm right here and five courts are wrong and they really screwed this up.’”
Peine took issue with the judge’s early statement about “all the other evidence in the case.” That’s because the only other evidence was the testimony of a forensic analyst, who tested samples from George and Lovell, and compared them to a sample collected during the woman’s forensic exam.
“This was before DNA, so there’s no DNA involved in this at all, but it was just blood types,” Peine said.
All three were secretors, which means their blood types show up in semen or vaginal secretions. The analyst found that the blood in the sample was consistent with multiple parties, which corroborated the woman’s testimony that two men raped her. And the analyst found that the sample could not rule out George and Lovell. In other words, both of them could have been contributors. But the elements that were found could have come from other blood types as well.
“As I recall, Mr. Lewis had an unusual blood type,” Peine said. “That is true.”
The forensic analyst testified that only 4% of the population had the same exact blood type as George. But the analyst never said that George’s blood type was definitely present in that sample.
Despite that, when the prosecutor got up to talk to the jury, she emphasized the 4% number. She started by pointing out to the jury that blood evidence can’t point to one person, but it can exclude people. Then she started going through the numbers. George Lewis is Type A. That’s 22% of the Black population. He’s a 1-plus, 1-minus PGM Enzyme Factor. That’s 17 to 18%. Multiply those together, and that gets you 4%.
She told the jury, “So while the evidence does not point to Lewis as definitely the person, it certainly corroborates the victim.”
Peine said George’s trial attorney did not object to this statement.
“You know I think everybody sort of said, ‘Oh, OK. 4%,’” Peine said. “That was, I think, the number that somehow the prosecutor brought up. And that was the mistake that got stuck in everybody's head. And the defense counsel should have screamed to high heaven about this."
Peine doesn’t think the prosecutor intentionally twisted that number. And even if it had been calculated correctly, this type of evidence is usually not allowed in court because it’s called “prejudicial” instead of “probative.” In other words, it’s convincing, but it doesn’t prove anything.
“This percentage stuff can be so determinative of an outcome,” Peine said. “You know, if you are a juror in this case and you're led to believe ... that Lewis is in a 4% of the population, that only 4% that could have contributed this, then you think there’s a really good chance he's the guy.”
When George’s attorney tried to get him a new trial back in 1988, he brought this up - saying he believed the jury interpreted this as a 96% chance George was the perpetrator. The judge said because there was no objection to that evidence at trial, it wasn’t enough to grant a new trial.
When Peine got the case, he surmised quickly that every other appeals court had missed the miscalculation.
“At each point, the same errors were perpetuated,” he said. “At each point, nobody took the time to dig a little bit deeper and see what was really going on.”
In Peine’s brief, he also hammered at the appeals court’s reasoning that the victim’s recantation at Lovell’s trial might make her seem more trustworthy, not less. He wrote in his brief: “That is ridiculous.”
Peine pointed out that the woman did not give much of a description to police, except for two Black men, until she saw George and Lovell.
“These two guys came in and she said, ‘Oh, I think those are the guys who did it,’” Peine said. “Up to that time, she never gave any description of them other than saying they were two Black men.”
Peine knew that the courts are very reluctant to overturn a jury’s verdict. But he argued that the jury’s verdict was irrelevant because they were missing key information about the witness recanting, and because they were fed confusing statistics about the likelihood of George being guilty.
He wrapped up his brief by saying George’s trial was an overall evidentiary and constitutional debacle.
And the judges agreed with him, at least to some extent.
The federal court overturned the state court’s decision and granted George a writ of habeas corpus. The judges said they disagreed with previous rulings, and thought the victim’s recantation at Lovell Carter’s trial would “destroy her credibility” in the jury’s eyes. The ruling also pointed out that the blood evidence was “inconclusive,” and other testimony from police officers depended entirely on the victim’s description of events. So, these judges reasoned, the entire trial depended “almost entirely” on the woman's testimony.
They wrote, “We do not believe a second jury would convict Lewis.”
With a writ of habeas corpus granted, George had to be released unless the state could start a new trial within a “reasonable period of time.”
Even with such a strongly worded order from the federal courts, Peine said he remembers it taking prosecutors about a month to decide not to retry George.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman dismissed the charges against him, saying “recently discovered evidence makes it impossible to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” He also said the victim did not want to pursue prosecution.
“They would have very little chance of any success retrying him,” Peine said. “That might have been prosecutorial misconduct, too, under the lack of evidence that they had at that point. To have proceeded might have crossed that line.”
Patrice Eddy, the prosecutor in the case, agreed to speak on the phone about the case. She said she would not change the way she handled the prosecution. She agreed with the judge’s decision to deny George a new trial.
It’s been a long time and she doesn’t remember all the details. But Eddy said after the recantation at Lovell’s trial, she’s sure she would have asked the woman if she was still sure about George. Eddy said if the answer had been no, she would have worked to dismiss the case. But she doesn’t believe that the survivor having uncertainty about one defendant was reason to dismiss the case against the other.
Eddy did not remember the 4% evidence specifically, but said she thought it would have been a “weak” argument to use with a jury.
‘He was exhausted’
Peine said George’s case demonstrates a recurring difficulty in the fight to be exonerated. Because each appeals court gives the previous one the benefit of the doubt, if a person gets denied once, it has a snowball effect. The person might go through appeal after appeal, and each time, it gets harder. Because now they’re trying to make a case that every previous judge got it wrong.
Peine said at some point that snowball turns into an avalanche, covering up everything in its path.
George’s federal appeal came at a time in the U.S. when it was arguably even harder to win an exoneration than it is now. The courts were tough on crime in the early ‘90s, and Peine said they were not generally sympathetic to the convicted. Peine said he gives a lot of credit to the federal judges who finally disagreed with the state courts, remembering that one judge appeared “outraged” during oral arguments.
Peine said he never worked another case like this one.
“This was one of a kind,” he said. “You don't have more than one of these, I think, in a career. And it was especially rewarding given the times and the rarity of this sort of decision in that time period.”
After George got out of prison, he visited Doug. George brought him a thank you card, which he has kept to this day. It says “Thanks Mr. Peine, for a job well done.”
“We talked for half an hour,” Peine said, remembering the meeting. “And that was it. And I can picture, he was modest, well-spoken, struck me as a very nice man. And he was not angry. He, if he was anything, he was exhausted. I think that's what he was.”
‘It’s just like ... somebody that’s been abused’
George was in prison three years. When he got out, he stayed in Minneapolis. He and his fiancée Geraldine stayed together for a while, but eventually their relationship ended. She ended up marrying another man.
Fritz, George’s brother, said he doesn’t know if it was directly because of the three years George was in prison.
George met a woman named Debbie, and Fritz said they were happy together. They got engaged, and even visited the Lewis family down in Mississippi. George started working for a recycling plant. And then in the mid-1990s, just a few years after his release, his life changed again.
“Something happened to him up there after that, I don’t know if he was still having flashes or flashbacks or something about his prison time,” Fritz said. “But he was doing good on the job, but don’t nobody exactly know what happened to him.”
George was at a party with some friends and left to go get more drinks, Fritz said.
“He don’t really know what happened and to this day he haven’t ever really got himself back straight,” George’s brother recalled. “They found him wandering the streets there in St. Paul, Minnesota. Didn’t know what automobile it was he was driving or anything. And after that, you know, I guess what you say, it was just history for him.”
That was the beginning of George’s life with dementia. He was only in his 30s.
“I don’t know how you develop it, but he start having it,” Fritz said.
Debbie cared for George until she couldn’t anymore. Her health was slipping, too. She put him in a personal care home, and then she later passed away.
In 2012, Fritz and Johnnie Mae drove to Minnesota to come get George and take him home. He would have been in his early 50s by then. Fritz said if they hadn’t done it, he would have become a ward of the state.
Fritz said George still knows who he is, and he knows who Fritz and Johnnie Mae are. Fritz doesn’t necessarily think George’s prison time caused his dementia, but he thinks it has something to do with it coming on so early in his life.
“All he knows now, and this is the reason why I say that,” Fritz said. “His biggest conversation is, ‘I’m a good boy, I’m a good boy.’ He can’t really just come out with an actual conversation until whatever it is, turn him loose for a little while, and then he’ll start asking like, what the day is. You know, it’s just like when you hear about somebody that’s been abused. Just about anybody could get to talking to him and that’s all he’ll know to say, ‘I’m a good boy.’”
There is some research that may back up Fritz’s theory that George’s wrongful conviction is connected to his condition. Several studies suggest a link between post-traumatic stress and dementia. Doctors who study the topic say more research is needed to show direct causation.
Both Fritz and Johnnie Mae still have questions about one more aspect of George’s release. They said when he was freed, he was asked to sign an agreement saying he wouldn’t sue. Fritz said no one in the family even wanted to sue, but the idea that they put the stipulation in there bothers him.
Many of the files in the case have been destroyed, and Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman declined an interview request for this story. He was not in office when George was convicted, but he was the county attorney when George was released in 1991.
Julie Jonas with the Great North Innocence Project said the state can indeed ask a person to sign something agreeing not to sue even if their conviction is thrown out. In fact, she’s seen it in other Innocence Project cases. She hasn’t seen it in Minnesota, but she said she would not be surprised if it happened.
“I don't have no paperwork to prove it, but it’s just word of mouth from me like it was word of mouth given to me,” Fritz said.
There’s one other thing that doesn’t sit well with Fritz. If it wasn’t George and Lovell who committed the rape, then they never caught the people who did.
“They got away scotch free, as they say,” Fritz said.