In Lewis case, only rooting is for justice

February 08, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Anyone who wears a "Free Ray Lewis" T-shirt should be ashamed.

On what basis should Lewis be freed? That he was wrongly charged with double murder in Atlanta? Or, that he is a Pro Bowl middle linebacker for the Ravens?

It can't be the former -- no one in the general public has enough information to determine that Lewis should be cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in the stabbing deaths of Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Demarus Baker, 21.

So, it must be the latter.

After one week, the Lewis case already is full of conflicting accounts, unanswered questions and debatable police actions. Thus, it's no surprise that many Ravens fans are engaging in wishful thinking, and even outright denial.

If reasonable doubt is the basis for finding an accused criminal not guilty, then there certainly appears to be hope for Lewis. But that's only based on what we know. And right now, we know only what Atlanta authorities and Lewis' attorneys wish to tell us.

The police may have more answers -- witnesses, suspects, evidence -- than they are willing to share. Lewis' defense team also may have more answers, but it's only going to relay knowledge that portrays its client in the best possible light.

Frankly, you can't even trust what the news media tell you.

When little official information is released, the media often rely on leaks and unnamed sources in an attempt to present the most accurate portrait possible. But that approach is not without risk: Richard Jewell is suing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for incrim- inating him with the tone of its coverage after identifying him as a suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in 1996. Jewell was cleared of suspicion by the FBI.

For both the media and general public, the lessons are clear: Reserve judgment. Weigh facts, not opinions. Keep an open mind.

Much as Ravens fans might be rooting for Lewis, the issue is not what his loss would mean to the team. The issue is justice, and justice will be served only when the murderers of the two victims are arrested, convicted and sentenced.

If Lewis is found guilty, so be it.

A fan is a citizen first. And an NFL team's fortunes are just slightly less important than the laws of the land.

For the most part, even the most passionate Ravens fans embrace those concepts. But when no one knows what to believe, anything and everything seems possible, from Ray Lewis, horrified bystander, to Ray Lewis, double murderer.

"Horrified bystander" -- that was the term that Lewis' attorney, Ed Garland, used to describe the player last Thursday. Another Lewis attorney, Donald F. Samuel, said yesterday that the defense team had interviewed all of the occupants of the limousine that sped from the slayings, and that each clears Lewis of wrongdoing.

Those findings stand in direct conflict with a statement reportedly given by a key witness to an Atlanta homicide detective. The statement, consistent with a police affidavit that led to Lewis' arrest, alleges that the player was involved in the fight that led to the two deaths and threw at least one punch at the victims.

Under Georgia law, Lewis can be held accountable for the deaths even if he did not commit the stabbings, if the state can prove he participated in a fight or in any other way that led to the incident.

But if Lewis indeed participated in a fight, why did the assistant Fulton County medical examiner say there was no evidence on either of the victims' bodies that they had been in a brawl?

Maybe the victims' heavy winter clothing cushioned the blows. Then again, it stands to reason that if the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Lewis hit someone, it would leave a mark.

Questions and more questions.

Why is Lewis the only person charged when at least eight others fled the scene in his rented limousine? What triggered the brawl between the time Lewis and his friends left the Cobalt Lounge after 3 a.m. and the time the murders occurred at approx- imately 4 a.m.? Have police identified a murder weapon? Why were shots fired at Lewis' limousine, and who fired them?

Atlanta police were required to show probable cause for a judge to charge Lewis and hold him without bail, but it's not as if the department is infallible. Indeed, it appears the police already have made two mistakes in this case -- allowing the bullet-ridden limousine to return to Maryland and identifying former Maryland football player A. J. Johnson as a person they wanted to question. Johnson has denied being in Atlanta, and police are close to ruling him out as a suspect.

None of that means Lewis is innocent, but it plants additional seeds of doubt in cynical minds. It's possible the police acted too hastily in arresting Lewis. It's also possible that prosecutors are building an impeccable case, and keeping the details to themselves.

Due process needs to take its course, no matter how many alibis are constructed for Lewis by would-be criminal defense attorneys who want to see him back in a Ravens uniform.

Free Ray Lewis?

Only if he deserves to be freed. And it's too soon to tell.

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