It took him almost two weeks to plead guilty to a killing that took only seconds.
And for Johnnl Lewis, that indecisiveness wound up costing him at least five extra years in prison for last spring’s shooting death of Highland Square street musician John Lehman.
Why Lewis, 21, hedged on pleading guilty is more clear than why he shot the McDonald’s worker four times.
On Oct. 11, Lewis appeared poised to accept a plea deal that could have put him before the Ohio Parole Board after serving 26 years in prison. After a lengthy delay, however, he passed on the state’s offer, and a trial date was set for Wednesday.
Once again, Lewis was in court considering a plea, but the sentence was now up to Summit County Common Pleas Judge Alison McCarty. There was no agreed sentence.
So, after nearly two hours of wavering, with a jury pool waiting, Lewis pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, illegal firearm possession and tampering with evidence.
McCarty then sentenced Lewis to life in prison with parole possible after 31 years.
Why Lewis killed Lehman remains unclear. Assistant Prosecutor Gregory Peacock said Lehman, 28, put his hands in the air after he exited the restaurant to take out the trash and was confronted by Lewis and his .38-caliber pistol.
Four shots were fired, two striking Lehman.
“I don’t know why he did it,” Peacock said in court. “I look in his eyes and I don’t see a completely evil human being ... [but] when someone has their hands up and are surrendering, why you shoot them four times, ... it makes no sense to me.”
Lewis tearfully apologized to the Lehman family, which was standing nearby in the courtroom. He offered no explanation as to why he — as a new father with a job and no significant criminal history — would undertake an armed robbery and shoot an unarmed, nonconfrontational worker.
“I didn’t mean to kill anybody. I didn’t mean to take that man’s life,” Lewis said before he was sentenced. “I really, really, really regret it.”
Lehman’s father, John; his grandmother, Mary Lehman; his aunt, Linda Howson; and his uncle James, spoke to the courtroom, recounting the man’s abbreviated life that was filled with music and gentleness.
He had worked for 10 years at McDonald’s and was happy with his lot in life. He loved playing his guitar, either at home or along the streets of the Highland Square area of Akron.
“I have absolutely no idea why he was killed,” James Lehman said. “I will never understand it because it is the most pointless thing that ever happened that I know of.”
Lewis’ attorneys, Walter Benson and Jeff Laybourne, pleaded with McCarty to restore the 26-year parole eligibility, citing their client’s cooperation after he was first questioned. The judge declined, saying she felt the 31-year wait is more appropriate than the plea attorneys negotiated last week.
An outpouring of support from the community following the April 6 shooting fueled tips to police.
Detectives Sgt. Jim Lietke and Troy Looney eventually questioned Lewis. He confessed, police said, telling them in his interview that he didn’t intend to shoot Lehman but was startled by the sudden opening of the restaurant’s rear door.
To those in the courtroom, Lewis’ reasoning was found wanting.
“It is inexplicable,” McCarty said. “All you had to do was turn around and walk away.”
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.