“Give me DNA at a crime scene and I will guarantee a conviction!”
That is what many prosecutors love to say.
On June 19, 2009, David W. Lewis was charged with 1st Degree Reckless Homicide in the death of Vernel Jeter that occurred 19 years earlier on February 18, 1990 at a house on 5th and Wright streets in Milwaukee. Jeter died from manual strangulation – someone had used their hands to choke her to death. She was fully‑clothed when found, and there were no signs of a struggle; however, semen was found inside her vagina.
Aside from the injuries related to the strangulation, she had also sustained bruising to her lower back. David, who had been friends with Jeter and her family, and lived nearby, was investigated at the time, along with several other suspects.
Unrepresented by counsel, he cooperated fully with officer, complying with questioning, and giving hair and nail clippings, as well as a blood sample.
When speaking with the police, David denied both having sex with Jeter, and strangling her. With no other leads, and no proof that David had committed the crime, the case was marked as “cold” and shelved for nearly two decades.
When the much vaunted “cold case squad” within the Milwaukee Police Department reopened the case in 2009, they arrested David for the murder, and took credit for “clearing” the Jeter homicide case.
The evidence they cited included David’s DNA being found in the victim’s vagina, and witnesses who claimed to have seen David climbing up a gutter to enter Jeter’s apartment in the back of the house.
The police narrowed their focus onto David because he was convicted of a strangulation homicide of another woman in 1994. The woman’s autopsy showed that she had suffered similar injuries to those of Vernel Jeter.
David was also suspected of sexually assaulting several neighborhood women around the same time as the Jeter homicide.
The jury heard about these suspected assaults at David’s trial.
When I first talked with David, and listened closely to his side of the story – the first step in winning any type case – David informed me that he, Jeter, and Jeter’s family all smoked crack cocaine regularly, and that Jeter’s house was called a “smoke house” because that was what is was primarily used for.
David told me that he was extremely close to Jeter and would never have hurt her. He admitted that the murder for which he was convicted in 1994 was true, and that was why he pled guilty to it.
However, he was adamant that he hadn’t harmed Jeter. Despite David’s checkered past, I believed in his case.
In preparing to defend David at trial, I examined every piece of evidence presented by the state, and several elements that they did not want to pursue.
At the time of the murder, a very similar sexual assault and strangulation homicide had been committed by a person that was also acquainted with Jeter – George Jones – who lived in the very same neighborhood.
Furthermore, the notorious serial killer Walter Ellis was apprehended in 2009, around the time that David was charged. Ellis, who was known as the North Side Strangler, was known to have killed at least 9 women in strangulation sexual assaults that were strikingly similar to the death of Vernel Jeter.
The court would not allow me to pursue Jones or Ellis as possible alternative suspects in Jeter’s death.
Ultimately, the state’s case against David, and their expert testimony regarding the DNA evidence had to be deconstructed.
A widely respected medical examiner brought in by the state admitted that the injuries to Jeter’s back were old – not part of the strangulation event. The examiner also established the time of death which did not coincide with when witnesses placed David at Jeter’s house on February 18th.
The jury quickly saw the serious inconsistencies in the state’s narrative and timeline, and deliberated for only 30 minutes before acquitting David of the crime.
The state’s headlong rush to charge David with Jeter’s death and to trumpet the effectiveness of the “Cold Case Unit” was blind to the cause of justice.
Lessons from the David Lewis case:
If you, or someone you know, is facing intense questioning by law enforcement,
please take your Fifth Amendment rights seriously and ask for a lawyer.