That’s how long John F. Lewis III, 35, would have been behind bars if a judge had honored a plea agreement the man struck with prosecutors in exchange for pleading guilty to shaking his 5-month-old son nearly to death last June.
But District Judge Michael N. “Nick” Deegan didn’t agree with handing the mild penalty to the man who pleaded guilty in November to aggravated child abuse, a felony punishable with up to 25 years in prison. Lewis had earlier admitted to deputies that while his wife was at work, he had shaken Cody Lewis, the couple’s 5-week-old son until he stopped crying.
That’s why the judge, who is not bound by deals made between lawyers, decided five to 10 years in prison was a more appropriate punishment for Lewis’ crime.
“Sir, I’m sure today you wish this never happened, but it did happen,” Deegan said. “I don’t think anybody in this room could disagree that this was a grievous offense against an infant. The court finds that it is decidedly not in the interest of justice to subscribe to this plea agreement.”
As Deegan announced the decision, Lewis shook his head.
The 16 people in the courtroom supporting Cody Lewis’ mother, Melissa Hicks, breathed a sigh of relief as Hicks blurted out “thank God,” and embraced her mother.
The decision was the end of a battle that Hicks began months ago seeking justice for her son who likely will live the rest of his life with significant disabilities as a result of the trauma.
During the hearing, prosecutor Jackie Brown read a victim impact statement submitted by Hicks.
In that statement, the mother of four described the painful weeks surrounding her then-husband’s assault on their child. In that time, two weeks of which the couple spent in Denver watching doctors struggle to save Cody’s life, Lewis refused to admit what he had done, even when doctors pleaded with him explaining that it could help them treat his son.
Hicks had left her two sons home with Lewis, believing they would be safe there.
Lewis admitted what he had done only after Hicks’ 7-year-old son told deputies his stepfather had shaken Cody until he stopped crying, then bashed his head on the edge of his bassinet before leaving him there to suffer, according to Hicks’ statement.
The boy was threatened by Lewis not to tell anybody what he had seen.
It was a revelation that evoked gasps and sobs from the gallery packed with people in the courtroom Thursday.
While Brown read the multi-page statement, Deegan glanced over toward Lewis to see his reaction. There was none from the man who has fathered eight children and now relinquished his parental rights for three of them.
A pre-sentence investigation showed that Lewis has twice been convicted of felonies, one, a third-degree sex assault and the other for failing to register as a sex offender.
Lewis’ lawyer, Clay Jenkins, submitted that his client owes about $40,000 in back child support and tens of thousands of dollars to Medicaid for bills incurred by the injury he caused to Cody. But, he argued that a probationary term was the best for his client because it would allow him to pay his debts.
He appealed to Deegan to stick with the deal Brown outlined at the beginning of her sentencing argument, a deal that would keep Lewis out of prison and on probation for an extended period.
Hicks says prosecutors never asked her input before offering the deal. And no prosecutor was able to give her a reasonable explanation why such a lenient deal would be offered, she said.
After several attempts Thursday afternoon by the News Record to contact Campbell County Attorney Jeani Stone with questions, she responded Friday morning with a written statement about the deal made in Lewis’ case.
In that statement, Stone said the deal was the result of miscommunication between former prosecutor Bill Edelman, who since has taken a job as a district judge in Buffalo, and Brown.
“During the course of that transfer, miscommunication or a misunderstanding took place as to where we were with the case in relation to an offer and the terms of the offer,” Stone wrote. “I subsequently learned of the offer, and was truthfully distraught that such an offer was made, however, I was unable to do anything about it as it had already been accepted by the defendant. My hands were tied to the offer that was made and the recommendations from our office of no prison time.”
Deals made with defendants in her office must be approved either by Stone herself or the chief deputy county attorney, who was Edelman at the time. Stone assumed that the deal had been approved by Edelman, which had not.
“In my opinion, justice would not been served had the judge followed the sentence recommendation that was made,” Stone wrote. “In this instance, mistakes were made. This was clearly a miscommunication in the transferring of this file and the judge’s sentence more clearly served justice.”
After the sentence was announced, and Hicks stood in the hallway outside the courtroom, she breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank God he listened,” she said, wiping tears from her face. “But, I wanted to hear ‘I’m sorry’ and it never came.”
Initially this case was being handled by Mr. Edelman. Upon his departure from the County Attorney’s Office this case was transferred to Ms. Brown. A meeting was held between Mr. Edelman and Ms. Brown to discuss the case prior to it being transferred. During the course of that transfer, miscommunication or a misunderstanding took place as to where we were with the case in relation to an offer and the terms of the offer. As a result, an offer was made to Mr. Lewis by Ms. Brown to plead guilty to Aggravated Child Abuse, which was charged with, however, made a recommendation of suspended penitentiary time (sic). I subsequently learned of the offer, and was truthfully distraught that such an offer was made, however, I was unable to do anything about it as it had already been accepted by the Defendant. My hands were tied to the offer that was made and the recommendations from our office of no prison time.
Our practice has been that offers such as this be approved by myself or the Chief Deputy, however, there was again an assumption that Mr. Edelman had discussed what Ms. Brown believed to be the offer with me, when in fact that was not the case. Our practice is also to seek the input of victims in cases prior to offers being made, and again in this case, was overlooked as a result of the miscommunication. Ms. Brown apologized to the victim’s mother at the Change of Plea Hearing, and emphasized to her that the Court could still hear her input through a Victim Impact Statement at the Sentencing Hearing. Ms. Brown also apologized to law enforcement for the miscommunication and the offer. It was a solid investigation.
In my opinion, justice would not been served had the Judge followed the sentence recommendation that was made. In this instance, mistakes were made. This was clearly a miscommunication in the transferring of this file and the judge’s sentence more clearly served justice.
Children have always been a priority under my administration and will continue to be. The issues that arose in this case were a direct result of the transition period in our office and we will continue to strive that such mistakes do not happen in the future.