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Jury weighs fate of man accused of Cleveland's deadliest house fire

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A federal jury in Cleveland on Friday was deliberating the fate of a man charged with setting a blaze that killed eight children and a woman in the deadliest house fire in the city's history.

Antun Lewis, 29, was convicted of arson by a federal jury two years ago, but granted a new trial by U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., who said prosecutors relied too heavily on unreliable witnesses including jailhouse informants.

Lewis's new trial began in November and was turned over to the jury late on Thursday. Lewis faces a possible life sentence if convicted. Oliver previously ruled that the defendant's IQ was too low for him to be eligible for the death penalty.

Lewis is accused of using gasoline to set a fire that killed Medeia Carter and eight children, aged 7 to 14, who were attending a birthday sleepover at her house in 2005.

The case was prosecuted in federal court because Carter was receiving federal housing assistance to pay for her home.

During closing arguments on Thursday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Collyer said a witness saw Lewis buy two gallons of gas and enter Carter's house through a side door minutes before authorities received a report of a fire.

Prosecutors also told jurors phone records prove Lewis was in the area at the time of the fire and said Lewis gave investigators a series of false alibis, constantly changing his story about his whereabouts that evening.

Defense attorneys conceded that Lewis bought $5 of gasoline shortly before the fire, but said Lewis lived a few streets away and it was not unusual for him to be in the area.

Prosecutors presented the testimony of six jail house informants who said Lewis admitted to setting the fire because of a grudge he had with someone he thought was in the house.

Collyer said Lewis was using drugs at the time of the fire and was acting irrationally about a disagreement he had with a woman who lived in the home.

Lewis's attorney, Angelo Lonardo, told jurors not to believe the testimony of "career criminals" and "con men" presented by prosecutors. "You can tell your friends, 'I saw a crack addict testify for the government in a federal case'," Lonardo said.

Lonardo said it did not make sense that Lewis would burn down a house when his 12-year old sister, one of the victims, was inside.

"The people responsible for this fire are free," he added.

(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by David Bailey and Chris Reese)

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