Possible misdirection play not gaining Lewis yardage

February 11, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Until yesterday, the question was whether Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis participated in a double murder. To hear Atlanta law enforcement authorities tell it, the question might now include whether Lewis has hindered a criminal investigation as well.

If authorities can prove that Lewis misled and lied to investigators, it could not only damage the three-time Pro Bowler's credibility in court, but also lead to additional criminal charges, two Baltimore criminal defense attorneys said yesterday.

"It's one thing to try to keep your mouth shut," said attorney Jack Rubin, citing a citizen's right to remain silent. "It's another thing to say it's `A' when it's `B,' to give intentionally misleading information."

Lewis' attorney, Ed Garland, said that the player did no such thing, claiming that Lewis grew confused under "very hostile" questioning, and unintentionally gave incomplete statements and the wrong name of an occupant in the limousine that sped from the crime.

Lewis also might have been confused on another level. He might not have known that the man he identified as "A.J." is actually Reginald Oakley of Baltimore, 31.

Who is Oakley?

One of two suspects with extensive criminal records whom authorities will seek to indict today along with Lewis for murder. Both Oakley and Joseph L. Sweeting of Miami, 34, remain at large, and should be considered armed and dangerous, police said.

As with everything surrounding this case, it's impossible to know what to believe, or what will happen next. But the problem for Lewis is that the authorities opened another legal avenue yesterday without veering from their original course.

This is not a game. The mayor of Atlanta, deputy police chief and Fulton County district attorney all appeared at yesterday's news conference. As the tangled legal web grows, the Ravens' belief that Lewis will be their middle linebacker next season seems more and more unrealistic.

If it was difficult to be optimistic before, it's even more difficult now.

Garland described Oakley and Sweeting as "hangers-on with Ray, groupies, for years." Some groupies: Oakley escaped from a North Carolina prison in 1991, and Sweeting served two years in federal prison for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Both are convicted felons whose offenses include drug dealing.

Fine associations for an NFL star.

It's still possible that Lewis was "a horrified bystander," a would-be peacemaker who was 100 feet away from where the stabbings took place, as his lawyers claim. But if he lied to investigators, he could be charged with obstruction of justice and accessory after the fact, Rubin said.

Authorities also accused Lewis of having evidence removed from Atlanta and transported to "other parts of the country," a charge that could lay the groundwork to charge Lewis with conspiracy and destroying evidence, Rubin said.

And those aren't the only legal foundations that authorities are trying to construct, according to another Baltimore criminal defense attorney, Warren Brown.

"They're talking to potential jurors who will begin early on to create their own impressions, in part based on what they're all hearing -- that he [Lewis] is a liar and a hinderer," Brown said.

If the authorities succeed in undermining Lewis' credibility, it would be more difficult for him to get bail, and jeopardize his chances in a jury trial, Brown said. Lewis has a bail hearing scheduled for Monday. If he is indicted today, that hearing would be postponed.

Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard expressed frustration not just with Lewis yesterday, but the cocoon of silence that many of his associates are weaving around him. Coming from law enforcement authorities, those are familiar, but groundless, complaints.

Campbell said ominously, "sometimes silence speaks volumes." But silence is a constitutional right. Witnesses aren't required to volunteer information in a murder case. And when the accused is a millionaire football player, his friends aren't going to rush to incriminate him.

Lewis is a celebrity.

And with each passing day, it's becoming more of an issue.

Campbell took pains to explain yesterday that Lewis should not be viewed sympathetically because of his stature, saying the two victims, Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21, were "not celebrities not wealthy not famous."

But Garland, Lewis' lead attorney, said the player's fame is working against him.

"They've made a case against a celebrity and they're going to try to make it stick no matter what the facts are," Garland said. "We're going to bring them the facts and those facts will exonerate Ray Lewis."

Maybe, but Lewis' latest instance of questionable judgment could further damage his chances of being cleared. He already was charged with a sensational crime in a trendy neighborhood of the Super Bowl city hours after the game was played. The last thing he needed was the prospect of additional legal problems.

If it was difficult to be optimistic before, it's more difficult to be optimistic now.

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