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Ray Lewis Trial: 2000

Ray Lewis Trial: 2000

Defendant: Ray Lewis
Crimes Charged: Murder, assault with a deadly weapon
Defense Lawyers: Ed Garland, Jana Harris, Max Richardson
Prosecutor: Paul Howard
Judge: Alice D. Bonner
Place: Atlanta, Georgia
Dates of Trial: May-June 2000
Verdict: Guilty of obstruction of justice; other charges dropped

SIGNIFICANCE: The arrest of Ray Lewis, a National Football League (NFL) linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens, on murder charges, coming just weeks after the indictment of another professional football player, Rae Carruth of the Carolina Panthers, on first-degree murder charges, focussed national attention on the issue of violence by professional athletes.

Ray Lewis grew up in Lakeland, Florida, and played football for the University of Miami. He left after his junior year and was selected by Baltimore in the first round of the 1996 draft. He led the Ravens in tackles each of his four seasons, and led the league in tackles in 1997 and 1999. In 1998 he signed a fouryear contract extension with the Ravens for $26 million, making him the highest paid middle linebacker in the National Football League.

Victims Stabbed during Brawl

At the end of January 2000, Lewis traveled from Baltimore to Atlanta, Georgia, in a Lincoln Navigator stretch limousine to participate in various activities associated with Super Bowl 2000, in which the St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans. On the evening of January 30, Lewis and a number of friends engaged in post-game celebrations, which took them in the early hours of the next morning to a nightclub called the Cobalt Lounge in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta. There were arguments inside the club between members of Lewis's party and other patrons, and these continued in the parking lot as they were leaving. A brawl began when Reginald Oakley, an old friend of Ray Lewis, was hit on the head with a champagne bottle by Jacinth Baker, a 21-year-old man from Decatur, Georgia. In the fight Baker and Richard Lollar, aged 24, also from Decatur, were stabbed to death. The Fulton County medical examiner was later to give the opinion that they must have been stabbed by someone with a knowledge of anatomy, because the wounds were directly to vital organs, causing them to bleed to death very quickly.

Lewis fled from the scene in his limousine, along with some 11 others, including Reginald Oakley and another old friend, Joseph Sweeting, both of Miami. Witnesses reported that some five shots were fired as the limousine left, but it was unclear whether they were fired from the vehicle, or at it. Police found the limousine a few hours later, parked behind the hotel in which Lewis was staying. He was arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder and held without bail. Sweeting and Oakley had disappeared. Within hours Max Richardson, an attorney representing Lewis, issued a statement denying any direct involvement in the deaths and claiming that it was just a case of a well-known public figure being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Case Against Ray Lewis

On February 2 the lead role in Lewis's defense was taken over by Ed Garland of Atlanta, described in the press as "a noted criminal lawyer who is known in the region for a certain flamboyance while representing the rich and famous." On February 7 Atlanta police searched Lewis's Baltimore home, and on February 10 there was a news conference given by Atlanta deputy police chief Carter Jackson and Fulton County district attorney Paul Howard, at which they gave the details of the case as they saw it. Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting were also principal suspects in the murder. Both had extensive criminal records, were still fugitives, and were considered armed and dangerous. The authorities said Lewis and two acquaintances had purchased knives at an Atlanta sporting goods store on January 29. Howard stated that witnesses would testify that Lewis had been active in the brawl. The chief prosecution witness would be the driver of the limousine, Duane Fassett. Two days later Lewis was indicted by a grand jury and charged with two counts of malicious murder, two counts of felonious murder, and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon.

The next day Ed Garland gave the defense's version of the incident, claiming that Lewis had attempted to be a peacemaker in the brawl and to break up the fight, trying to pull his acquaintances away. The shots that were fired were aimed at the limousine as it left.

On February 14 Joseph Sweeting turned himself into police, and Reginald Oakley did so the following day. That same day Lewis was released on $1 million bail, ordered to stay in his Maryland home, and to use no alcohol or drugs.

The case was assigned to Fulton County Superior Court judge Alice D. Bonner, and Lewis formally entered a not guilty plea. In pretrial motions Judge Bonner ruled that the results of the search of Lewis's home could be used in the trial, but that previous allegations of assault could not. Twice during Ray Lewis's college days Coral Gables police had investigated Lewis following allegations of battery made by different girlfriends, but no charges were brought. In November 1999 a woman had brought second-degree assault charges against Lewis, alleging that he had punched her in the face during an incident at a Baltimore area nightclub. These charges were dropped in late March 2000 because of conflicting testimony from witnesses.

Prosecution's Murder Case Collapses

Jury selection for the trial began on May 15. Before opening statements were made Judge Bonner ruled that a statement given to police by Ray Lewis after the incident, and now acknowledged to be false, could be introduced in evidence against him. The prosecution, led by Fulton County district attorney Paul Howard, began the presentation of its case on May 27. Howard acknowledged that no witness would testify to having seen Ray Lewis with a knife, but that the testimony would show involvement in the fighting that resulted in the deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. The defense emphasized that no witnesses saw any of the three defendants with a knife, that two men known to have fled in the limousine had never been traced, and that defense witnesses would contradict the testimony of Duane Fassett, the limousine driver and chief prosecution witness. Lewis, the defense would argue, was only trying to stop the fight.

In the second week of the trial the prosecution case was weakened when four of its witnesses failed to identify Lewis as an aggressor in the fight, and it disintegrated when Duane Fassett took the stand. In a statement to police Fassett had said that he saw Lewis punch one of the victims, and that in the limousine as it left he had heard Oakley say, "I stabbed mine" and heard Sweeting reply, "I stabbed mine too." But on the witness stand Fassett said that he had never seen Lewis throw a punch, and that he appeared to be trying to break up the fight. To the surprise of legal observers, District Attorney Howard didn't even attempt to impeach the witness by confronting him with his earlier statement.

Murder and Assault Charges Dropped

On Monday, June 5 the prosecution dropped the murder and assault charges against Lewis, in return for his agreeing to plead guilty to a misdemeanor (obstruction of justice) for making false, incomplete, and misleading statements to police after his arrest, and to testify against his codefendants. Lewis was given one year's probation, during which he was to continue to be employed; ordered to pay one-third of the court costs; and forbidden to use drugs or alcohol during the period of his probation.

In testimony the following day, Lewis told the court that Sweeting had shown him afterwards how he had concealed the knife in his fist and jabbed with it, but that he could not tell whether either Sweeting or Oakley had stabbed anyone. Oakley, he said, had been the aggressor in the fight. He had seen no blood on Sweeting's knife or clothing. The jury acquitted both men on June 12.

District Attorney Howard expressed his disappointment that the evidence given in court by several prosecution witnesses differed from their statements to police. But legal observers noted that Howard may have made strategic errors: by pursuing a quick indictment he had circumvented a preliminary hearing, which might have revealed the prosecution's strategy, but this had enabled the defense to demand a speedy trial, which the prosecution seemed unprepared for. Moreover, Paul Howard had not tried a case in four years and was in the middle of a reelection campaign. The anticipated media attention the trial would receive was seen by many as a factor in Howard's decision to personally lead the prosecution team.

Ray Lewis was fined $250,000 by the National Football League for lying to the police, but resumed his successful career as a football player, helped lead the Ravens to victory in the 2001 Super Bowl, and won the game's Most Valuable Player Award.

David I. Petts

Suggestions for Further Reading

New York Times, Atlanta Constitution (February-June, 2000).

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Lewis, Ray 1975–

Ray Lewis 1975

Professional football player

At a Glance

Sources

Ray Lewis emerged from tiny Lakeland, Florida to become one of the National Football Leagues (NFL) most feared defensive players of the modern era. Lewiss passion for football grew out of his love of wrestling, a sport that he excelled in at Lakeland Kathleen High School. Lewiss father had won state wrestling titles at Kathleen, and that motivated Lewis to set new records there. On the football field Lewis has exuded the same kind of passion and desire. His prowess in football at Kathleen attracted the attention of all of the states major colleges. Once Lewis decided on the University of Miami, he worked to become one of the best players in the schools history.

After three years of college, Lewis entered the NFL and was taken by the Baltimore Ravens. The previous season, the Ravens had moved from Cleveland to Baltimore and had not yet developed a team identity. But Lewis quickly established an identity for himself through his tenacious defensive playing. He combined speed and power with the ability to change the game with one hit or one big play. During the 2000 season, Lewis led the Ravens to a victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

As a youngster Lewiss determination to succeed as an athlete was formidable. At Kathleen High Lewis won the Class 4A 189-pound state title, while earning at the same time Florida High School Athletic Association All-State honors. But most of Lewiss notoriety came through football, which would prove his vehicle to stardom. On Kathleens football team, Lewis was named the most valuable player during both his junior and senior years. During his career, Lewis played running back and linebacker, and returned kicks. He also had ten quarterback sacks in two years as well as several kick return touchdowns.

Such athletic prowess helped him to earn a full football scholarship to the University of Miami, where Lewis played for then-coach Dennis Erickson. Off the field, however, Lewis suffered a major loss: his roommate, Marlin Barnes, was murdered. Lewis wears a t-shirt under his uniform that symbolized the bond that he had with Barnes. He told the Baltimore Sun, [w]hen he passed away, he became my motivation. I do this for him. Despite the setback, Lewis was named a second-team All-American after his junior season with the Hurricanes. He also was the runner-up for the coveted Dick Butkus Award, which is given to college footballs

At a Glance

Born Ray Anthony Lewis on May 15, 1975, in Bartow, FL; son of Ray Lewis, Sr. and Sunseria Keith; children: Ray Anthony III, Rayshad. Education: University of Miami.

Career: Professional football player. Baltimore Ravens, linebacker, 1996-.

Awards: Named NFL Defensive MVP, Super Bowl MVP; selected to Pro Bowl, five times; first-team All-Pro.

Addresses: c/o Baltimore Ravens, 11001 Owings Mills Blvd, Owing Mills, MD 21117.

best linebacker each year. All of the success prompted Lewis to enter his name into the NFL Draft, where the Ravens chose him 26th overall.

Lewis made his impact felt throughout the NFL, particularly in the American Football Conferences Central Division, where the Ravens played eight of their scheduled 16 games. As a 21-year-old rookie, Lewis was the Ravens leading tackler, registered two and a half quarterback sacks, and one interception. For his efforts, Lewis was named to USA Todays All-Rookie Team. Lewis followed up his rookie year with another outstanding campaign that included 210 tackles, which earned him team honors once again. A 13-tackle performance against the rival Cincinnati Bengals on December 21,1997, helped him to preserve the NFLs title for tackles and put him in his first Pro Bowl ever. Before the 1998 season, Lewis signed a four-year $26 million contract, which placed his salary among the NFLs highest for linebackers. Ravens defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis, commented to Sports Illustrated about the linebacker, [h]es got everything you want, from great mental capacity to leadership skills to incredible intensity and athletic ability.

While Lewiss accomplishments as a football player were constant, they were overshadowed by the events of January 31, 2000. During the after-party following Super Bowl XXIV in Atlanta, Georgia, Lewiss friends Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley allegedly got into a fight with Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker near the Cobalt nightclub in upscale Buckhead, Georgia. Lollar and Baker were stabbed to death in the fracas. Lewis, Sweeting, and Oakley were charged with six counts of murder. He was jailed in Atlanta before posting bond. He was allowed to return to his home in Maryland.

According to CNN Sports Illustrated.com, in June of 2000, a judge approved a deal that allowed Lewis to avoid murder charges and jail time by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and testifying against Sweeting and Oakley. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced to 12 months probation, which prohibited him from using any illegal substances during that time. For his involvement, Lewis was fined $250,000 by NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue for violating the leagues morality clause.

Before Ravens training camp in July of 2000, Lewis apologized to his teammates and asked them for their forgiveness. He determined to put the incident behind him and led the Ravens to the AFC Playoffs. In the process, the Ravens defense set a single 16-game season record for the fewest points allowed.

Lewis made one spectacular play after another, helping the Ravens to secure playoff wins over the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, and Tennessee Titans. During the playoff run, Lewis was quoted by Slam! Sports as saying, Im like a pit bull with a steak. Im bloodthirsty, but only about football. Despite constant pleas from Lewis to talk about just football, questions from members of the media kept going back to the incident from January of 2000. But in the end, Lewis felt that he had once again overcome adversity, especially after the Ravens victory in Super Bowl XXXV. (God) says, When you go through tragedy, Ill make it your biggest treasure, he told Cincinnati Enquirer contributor Paul Daughtery. And I feel like the season Im having is my treasure.

Sources

Books

Newsmakers, Issue 3, Gale Group, 2001.

Periodicals

APB Celebrity News, February 4, 2000.

Baltimore Sun, July 19, 1998.

Cincinnati Enquirer, January 14, 2001.

Holland Sentinel, January 24, 2001.

Slam! Sports, January 8, 2001.

Sports Illustrated, January 8, 2001.

USA Today, June 13, 2000.

On-Line

www.APBnews.com

www.CourtTV.com

www.thehollandsentinel.net

www.NFL.com

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