Crime

Man convicted of killing his toddler claims racial discrimination, wants new trial

Oren Joseph Lewis of Waveland was convicted of capital murder in the death of his toddler daughter in June 2016. He is requesting a new trial.
Oren Joseph Lewis of Waveland was convicted of capital murder in the death of his toddler daughter in June 2016. He is requesting a new trial.

Oren Lewis has filed a motion in Hancock County Circuit Court to have his June 16 murder conviction set aside and a new trial ordered.

Lewis, 34, was convicted of capital murder in the death his daughter, 23-month old Ma’Leah Bush, who died two days after suffering injuries at the Lewis home on August 25, 2013. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In the motion, Lewis’ attorney Jim Davis argues, among other things, that Lewis was discriminated against during the jury selection process.

A friend of the victim’s mother was allowed on the jury, and the court erred by not allowing a manslaughter jury instruction, the motion says.

Lewis is black. The jury for his trial was made up of 10 women and four men, all of whom were white. One male and one female juror were alternates and did not participate in deliberations. According to several officials who were inside the courtroom during jury selection, there were many potential black people in the jury pool. During the selection process, however, several of those potential jurors said they either knew or were related to the Lewis family. Likewise, several potential white jurors said they, too, knew the Lewis family.

In the motion, Davis said potential black jurors were struck because they knew Lewis, but some of the white ones were not.

“The race neutral reason the state gave was insufficient,” Davis said. “The race neutral reason the state gave was that a juror (a black woman) knew the Lewis family and that justified them peremptory striking her, but this was after the state had accepted another juror (a white woman) who knew some of the Lewis family.”

Davis said the state engaged in “pattern discrimination” during jury selection.

Davis did not ask for a change of venue.

One juror who ultimately served on the panel was Facebook friends with Bush’s birth mother, who, Davis said, “hates the defendant.” Davis said this was not discovered until after the trial had begun.

When asked if she knew the victim’s mother during jury selection, Davis said, the juror did not answer.

“The defendant would never have kept a juror who was friends with the mother,” Davis wrote.

Davis said another key issue was the fact that the jury was only given the opportunity to return a verdict on a charge of murder. A potential manslaughter option was not given to the jury.

Davis said a theory was presented that Lewis may have accidentally “rolled over Bush” while they were sleeping, thus causing injury to her head.

“This clearly would have supported a theory of negligent homicide which was presented through the state’s own witness,” Davis said.

In addition, Davis argued that the court erred by denying several pre-trial motions — not granting a directed verdict, not granting jury instructions and other issues.

A motion for a new trial is first appeal a defendant can have after conviction.

The presiding judge can uphold the original trial and/or order a new trial.

If the judge upholds the trial and conviction, Lewis will then be allowed to appeal the case to the Mississippi Court of Appeals.

Assistant District Attorney Chris Daniel said Friday that the state typically does not comment on motions before they are heard in court.

Circuit Court Judge Larry Bourgeois will hear the motion, but no hearing date has been set.

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