Media have written off Ravens' Lewis, but where is presumption of innocence?

February 06, 2000|By GREGORY KANE

IS ANYONE getting the skittish feeling that we media types have tried Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, convicted him and banished him from the ranks of the living?

You might have first noticed this when news that Lewis had been charged with stabbing two men to death in Atlanta first hit the presses and airwaves. Nearly every reference to Lewis was in the past tense. "Lewis was this" and "Lewis was that." It's as if print and broadcast reporters had put their heads together and proclaimed Lewis' life over, as if he had not only been executed but buried.

Ironic, isn't it, that the movie "The Hurricane" has been in the box office Top 10 the past three weeks? The film tells the story of former middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter. In 1966, Carter was charged with fatally shooting three people in a Paterson, N.J., bar. A jury convicted him and a man named John Artis of the crime. A federal judge overruled that conviction and a second one in 1977. But apparently, the logic of 1966 prevails in the year 2000: If the police arrest you, you must be guilty. Especially, the Zeitgeist these days says, if you're a professional athlete. The notion of presumption of innocence is not supposed to apply to you.

After all, police never arrest and charge innocent people, do they? Well, those grounded in the real world know they do. Some cops go even further, planting evidence and framing folks. There have been allegations that some members of the Los Angeles Police Department have done just that. A few years ago, some Philadelphia police officers were found guilty of the same thing. Unless your head has been buried in the sand the past 50 years, you know that some cops commit perjury, and sometimes cops make mistakes.

Did this happen in Lewis' case? It's too soon to tell. All the evidence is not in. As of this writing, Atlanta police have proffered no physical evidence against Lewis: no fingerprints on a murder weapon, no victims' blood samples on any of Lewis' clothes. What Atlanta police do have is a statement from an eyewitness alleging Lewis stabbed the two victims.

Ah, eyewitness identification and testimony! How many innocents have been sent to prison based solely on eyewitness identification and testimony? Carter and Artis were. There was not one shred of physical evidence. No weapon recovered, no fingerprints, no gunpowder residue. The eyewitness against Lewis may be telling the truth. The witness may be lying or mistaken. (Lewis' limousine driver insists the linebacker had nothing to do with either the fight or the stabbings.)

But if eyewitness testimony is a shaky foundation for conviction, it's sure as hell the lamest reason for us media types to paint Lewis as the next coming of Jack the Ripper. You would think journalists -- who pride themselves on covering all aspects of an issue -- would know the pitfalls of over-reliance on eyewitness testimony. In fact, all of us know of at least one story where 10 people witnessed the same incident and gave 10 different versions of what happened.

During my freshman year in college, a young white guy was heard yelling the dreaded N-word while running across campus. Ordinarily, he would have been on safe grounds, the college being more than 90 percent white. But a group of black students happened to be within earshot. They proceeded to open up a giant, economy-sized can of butt-whip on the kid, who learned in one evening that free speech isn't really free.

In ensuing days, I heard different versions of the story. One of my homeboys from Baltimore, who went by the odd nickname of Slope, bragged incessantly about how he had punched the white kid out. I didn't know whether to believe Slope. I had to consider the source. The guy liked to walk around campus dragging a baseball bat behind him, for heaven's sake. My reservations were confirmed when another guy who was there told me Slope never touched the victim.

I've often wondered who would and would not have been charged if police in Lancaster, Pa., where the incident occurred, had to muddle their way through this maze of eyewitness testimony. The incident in Atlanta's Buckhead district sounds similar, except with far more tragic results. What exactly happened in the stabbing death of two men on Super Bowl Sunday is still not clear.

But what is clear is that it is far too early to make premature announcements about the death of Ray Lewis' pro football career and his future as convict number XXXXXX in the state of Georgia's prison system.

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