Homicide trial scheduled for May

ST. JOSEPH — While the Niles Township man accused of murdering his wife was expected to begin trial in February, pending lab results and large volumes of discovery have pushed the trial date to May.

On Monday, John Benton Lewis appeared before Judge Donna Howard for a continued case conference at the Berrien County Courthouse in St. Joseph.

Howard asked for court council to give her a status update on case discovery and DNA testing.

John Benton Lewis

Assistant Prosecutor Cara Wilkinson spoke on behalf of Jerry Vigansky, the assistant prosecutor who has been handling the case. She said Vigansky had told her that lab testing was about 95 percent complete.

“He [Jerry Vigansky] does not believe that there is anything else outstanding at this time,” Wilkinson said.

During a case conference for Lewis on Dec. 11, 2017, Vigansky had requested permission from Howard to build a life-size replica of the 9-foot by 7-foot room where Lewis’ wife Carla Lewis, 55, was fatally shot Aug. 13. Vigansky said he hoped to use the replica during the trial to illustrate the events that unfolded the day Carla died. On Monday, Wilkinson said the replica is nearly completed and is still expected to be utilized during Lewis’ trial.

Wilkinson said Vigansky does not have any anticipated motions at this time, but this could change if pending lab analysis reveals something further. She asked the judge to extend the motion deadline given that completed lab results may take more than a week to complete. She said everything else was on track and should be ready by Lewis’ anticipated trial date. 

Chief Public Defender Carl Macpherson, who represented Lewis, said that he agreed that they were on track for a May trial date and would appreciate a motions extension.

“Given the volume of discovery, both sides are still reviewing, so the investigation is ongoing,” Macpherson said.

Howard agreed to extend the motion deadline to comply with the ongoing investigation. She ordered that all motions be filed by March 23 — a 30-day extension.

“This is our third case conference, you should not need more than [30 days] to file a motion,” Howard said to the council. “I understand there is a lot, but now we are another 30 days past the last time. Certainly, the progress with what you have currently needs to be completed so that you can decide what motions need to be filed.”

Other than the potential for crime lab experts, Wilkinson said council does not anticipate other experts to be needed during the trial. 

Lewis was charged with first-degree premeditated murder in August 2017, after Carla was found fatally shot in a marijuana grow room that was located in the basement of the couple’s home at 1429 Lawndale Ave. in Niles Township.

Police said Lewis was found near his dead wife, uninjured and appeared emotionally shaken. He told authorities that Carla had been shot by two intruders who appeared at their home and then fled in Carla’s vehicle, a 2008 Mazda. Carla’s vehicle was later discovered abandoned in a cornfield off of Yankee Street in Cass County.

Police arrested Lewis at his home for noncompliance with medical marijuana. Lewis was legally growing medical marijuana plants, but he violated the law by permitting someone other than himself to tend to the plants, according to court officials.

Later, police heard from sources who alleged that Lewis had planned to kill Carla. These witnesses testified during a preliminary exam, when Howard determined probable cause to establish Lewis as a suspect in the case.

Lewis could spend life in prison if convicted of the crime.

Lewis is expected to appear for a status conference at 8:30 a.m. Monday, April 23. His trial is expected to last about two weeks and begin May 1.

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