In Ga., defendant can be guilty even if he's unaware of killing

Prosecutors would need to show felony occurred

February 05, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Even if Ray Lewis never handled the weapons used in the double slaying Monday outside an Atlanta bar, he could be convicted of murder if prosecutors can prove that he was aware someone was going to be killed or that he was involved in an unrelated crime during the incident, according to legal experts.

Under Georgia law, a defendant can be guilty of murder even if he is unaware of the killing as it occurs. For example, prosecutors would need to show that he participated in a violent felony, such as aggravated assault, during which an accomplice killed someone.

However, if he just happened to be on the street when the killings took place, it would be hard to win a conviction, said Wilmer Parker III, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor in Atlanta.

"They would have to show he was acting in concert with the people in the commission of a felony, even if it was not murder," Parker said. "They would have to link him to the perpetrators and a joint action prior to the homicide."

Martha Grace Duncan, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, said common law provides for four definitions of murder, only one of which is an intentional killing. The others are:

Killing someone accidentally, but with the aim of bodily harm.

Doing something that creates a risk of death -- such as someone firing a gun into a forest and hitting an unseen person.

Participating in a felony, such as a bank robbery, during which someone else kills a person.

Police allege in Lewis' arrest warrant that he stabbed the victims. But Lewis' attorney, Edward T. M. Garland, maintains that Lewis did not handle a knife, engage in or promote a fight, or know a killing had taken place until afterward.

That language seemed designed to head off a charge that Lewis was involved in an unrelated crime before the killings -- the fourth category of murder known as "felony murder," attorneys say.

Parker, who knows Lewis' attorneys but is not involved in the case, said it is unlikely that prosecutors would bring murder charges against Lewis to compel his cooperation in the investigation.

"Do they charge him to just get him to roll over? Probably not," Parker said.

Police may have found Lewis' account of the evening inconsistent with those of other witnesses, or another crime may have been committed that has not come to light, Parker said.

Another Atlanta attorney, Jerome J. Froelich Jr. of McKenney & Froelich, said it is possible the police acted too quickly in charging Lewis.

"It wouldn't be the first time," he said.

The police may have been worried that Lewis would leave the state and knew that lesser charges were unlikely to produce sufficient bail, so they charged him with murder, Froelich said.

But making the charge stick in court may be difficult, he said.

"I would not want to be a prosecutor to try the case if Lewis didn't wield the knife," Froelich said.

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