CLEVELAND – Prospective jurors were warned Wednesday to expect gruesome details in the trial of a man charged with arson in the fire deaths of nine, including eight children at a birthday sleepover.
U.S. District Court Judge Solomon Oliver, presiding at the start of jury selection in the trial of Antun Lewis, 27, told prospective jurors they must be ready to put aside emotion.
Solomon mentioned that gruesome details might emerge in the trial and said the goal was to select jurors "who have an open mind, who can be fair."
The jury questionnaire warned that evidence might include "very disturbing" autopsy photos.
Seventy-two prospective jurors filled the courtroom after Oliver met privately with attorneys on handling cases of those who said they can't serve for personal hardship reasons.
Lewis, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and print tie, nodded lightly as he stood to be introduced to prospective jurors, some straining to get a glimpse.
The jury is expected to visit the scene of the house fire on Monday, before opening statements.
The judge has ruled out the death penalty, saying Lewis is mentally disabled. Oliver mentioned his earlier ruling to jurors and assured them that rendering a verdict, not any penalty, was their duty.
"Don't let that concern you," he said.
Lewis could face a life prison term if convicted.
The fire killed Medeia Carter, 33, four of her children and four other youngsters attending a birthday sleepover party May 21, 2005, in a 99-year-old, wood-frame house in an impoverished neighborhood.
Authorities say Lewis doused the first floor with gasoline, setting what became Cleveland's deadliest house fire.
Prosecutors, in a rare move, said a federal rent subsidy involved the house in interstate commerce, giving them federal jurisdiction in an arson of government property.
No motive has been revealed.
Lewis, a convicted drug dealer who knew some of the victims, has denied wrongdoing and said he was home several blocks away when the fire started before dawn.
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