GULFPORT — In the two decades since he was convicted in a notorious Gulfport murder, George Lewis has consistently maintained that the police arrested the wrong man. But what may be his last best hope of proving his innocence faded Wednesday as new DNA tests failed to exonerate him.
The DNA results were the latest in a quarter-century of twists and turns in the case. It began in the early hours of May 23, 1984, when Karen Gregory was stabbed to death in her Gulfport home. As she fought for her life, the 36-year-old graphic artist let out a scream heard by more than a dozen neighbors, some of them blocks away. None called the police.
One of those who reported hearing the cry was George Lewis, then a 22-year-old St. Petersburg firefighter who lived across the street. Nearly two years later, after a long and difficult investigation, Lewis was arrested by a detective who happened to be a close friend. Though Lewis testified to the jury that he was not the killer, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sexual battery and then sentenced to life in prison. The St. Petersburg Times explored the case in A Cry in the Night, series published in 1986 and 1988.
Lewis and his defense attorneys pursued a long series of appeals, to no avail. Eventually his cause was taken up by the Innocence Project of Florida, a group that uses DNA testing to exonerate inmates convicted unjustly. Earlier DNA results in the case had been inconclusive. The Innocence Project requested permission to try another round of testing in hopes that recent advances in technology would show, once and for all, that the wrong man is behind bars.
Wednesday, after more than a year of waiting, attorneys on both sides received the latest test results from Orchid Cellmark, a lab in Dallas. Once again, the results neither proved nor disproved that Lewis' DNA matched evidence gathered in the case. Lewis, the reports said, "cannot be excluded" as a match.
"I think it means that of course George Lewis committed this murder," said Beverly Andringa, one of the prosecutors who argued the case at the original trial. "It's absolutely what I expected."
Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project, said he still thinks Lewis is innocent. He said his group needs to consult with Lewis, now 47 and incarcerated at the Tomoka Correctional Institution near Daytona Beach, before deciding whether to request any further testing.
"We're still looking at our options," said Miller. "We're in a difficult position as to where we go next."
Bob Paver, one of Lewis' original defense attorneys, said the case had been mishandled by authorities from the start.
"We can recover and sequence the DNA of 100,000-year-old Neanderthals, but we can't seem to find any male DNA on multiple 'modern' cotton swabs the former, and now discredited, medical examiner said were covered with enough semen to charge George with capital murder and sexual battery?" Paver said. "This isn't over."
Larry Tosi, the Gulfport detective who arrested his friend so many years ago, was disappointed when he heard the news. After the conviction, Tosi, now retired, never wavered in his belief in Lewis' guilt. Even so, he had hoped that this round of DNA tests would confirm that justice had been served.
"Wouldn't you know?" Tosi said. "I thought maybe this would put the thing to rest."