Lewis' legacy safe regardless of legal outcome

June 29, 1999|By Adrian Walker

BOSTON -- The unsanctioned monuments continue to pop up without warning -- walls adorned with images of the Celtics' Reggie Lewis in full flight. Alive.

They are more than the inspired doodlings of street artists; they are the depiction of the continuing grief and shock caused by Lewis' death at 27 in 1993, a sort of people's tribute to the star athlete from Baltimore's Dunbar High School and Boston's Northeastern University.

They are one version of Lewis' legacy. Another, more official, interpretation failed to emerge from the malpractice trial that ended Thursday in a mistrial against a renowned cardiologist after a jury could not decide if his diagnosis contributed to Lewis' death. Two consulting physicians were cleared of wrongdoing.

In the face of withering public criticism, Donna Harris-Lewis, Lewis' widow, has maintained that this trial was never about money, and it wasn't. It really wasn't about medical malpractice, either. It was about heroes, about whom we worship and why.

Three days before jury selection began, Ms. Harris-Lewis said the catalyst for her suit was not her husband's death but rather Dr. Gilbert H. Mudge Jr.'s allegation that Lewis admitted using cocaine shortly before his death.

Lewis collapsed during a playoff game in 1993 and was diagnosed with a life-threatening, possibly career-ending heart rhythm disturbance by a team of top doctors from New England Baptist Hospital. The Lewises then turned to Dr. Mudge, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, who after examining Lewis, said instead that he had a benign neurological condition. Two months later, the athlete died at 27.

Confused witness

Despite assertions that a pattern of drug use would be revealed at trial, the actual evidence turned out to be scant. Job Fuchs, 82, retired health director at Northeastern University, was expected to testify that Lewis tested positive for cocaine in 1987 while playing for the school. Instead, in the space of 10 minutes on the witness stand, Mr. Fuchs testified both that Lewis had and that he had not tested positive. So confused was his testimony that Judge Thayer Fremont-Smith ordered jurors to disregard it.

Ms. Harris-Lewis' attorneys didn't have to shoot holes in the deposition given by Wayne Brown, who claimed to have snorted cocaine with Lewis during their Northeastern days. He did that himself, admitting that he was high during most of the time he was testifying about. Brown did not actually appear on the stand.

A third defense witness, Ronald Marks, a recovering addict, testified that he saw Lewis snorting a white powder in a bathroom during a Celtics' charity auction. Legal analysts have said they doubt the cocaine evidence influenced the outcome of the trial.

Until I met Ms. Harris-Lewis for the first time shortly before the case went to court, I was almost prepared to believe that this lawsuit was an exercise in unbridled greed. In person, my cynicism evaporated. Her conviction that her family had been wronged, that her husband could have survived his heart condition, was powerful. She considered it her duty to her children to absolve her husband of allegations of drug use.

She has done that. And while it may be legally correct to say there was no verdict, that technicality is hardly the whole story. The finding was that her case did not clear the high bar that proves medical malpractice. Given the painstaking preparation that went into this case, it's hard to see why Ms. Harris-Lewis would fare better in another trial.

Her attorneys said Friday they expect a second trial in a matter of "weeks or months, not years."

A lot of people who found it easy to believe that a young black athlete was a cocaine user thought this trial was a slam dunk for Dr. Mudge. They were wrong. But there is more to winning a malpractice trial than simply prevailing on one issue.

For thousands, Lewis was a hero, not only for his play on the basketball court, but also for the way he conducted himself off the court -- his tireless work for youth, his unassuming demeanor and gentle manner. For those people, I believe, neither this trial nor any succeeding trial will shake that faith.

To those invested in believing the worst, they will continue to do so, lack of evidence be damned.

Adrian Walker is a Boston Globe columnist.

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