Lewis drama moves to courtroom

Bail review hearing could become akin to a trial for Ravens star

February 14, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Today's court hearing is billed as a routine bail review for Ray Lewis, its sole purpose to determine whether the Baltimore Ravens linebacker should remain jailed until his trial on murder charges.

But nothing has been routine in this free-wheeling odyssey of a flamboyant young football star who was consorting with two convicted felons when he got caught up in a fracas that led to a double killing after a Super Bowl party.

High-priced defense lawyers plan to use the hearing as a referendum on Lewis' proclaimed innocence -- a maneuver that could turn a typically dry court appearance into a show worthy of tabloid television.

The defense team has filed a thick packet of testimony and testimonials with the judge handling the case and hand-delivered it yesterday to the Fulton County district attorney. It contains accounts from witnesses located by private investigators and glowing letters on Lewis' behalf.

The new information, reviewed by The Sun yesterday, adds layers to a confusing and contradictory tale that has emerged piecemeal in the past two weeks.

"It has been enormously hard, if not impossible, through news and television stories to get a coherent picture of what might have happened," said Marc L. Miller, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "That's why we have a legal process."

Lewis, Joseph L. Sweeting of Miami and Reginald Oakley of Baltimore were indicted Friday in the stabbing deaths of Richard Lollar, 24, and Jacinth Baker, 21, outside the Cobalt Lounge on Jan. 31.

Oakely, 31, and Sweeting, 34, remain at large. Both were reported to be in Atlanta over the weekend preparing to surrender but were not in custody as of last night. Lewis, 24, has been jailed without bail since the day of the killings.

In a jail interview yesterday with a reporter for Baltimore's WNUV-TV, Lewis said he feels God is placing obstacles in his way for a reason. Lewis would not discuss specifics of the case in the untaped interview but said he is innocent and has been falsely accused. He said he is confident that he will be released from prison after the bond hearing.

While prosecutors have not alleged that Lewis used a knife, they have charged him with being an active participant in the fatal fight before speeding away with others in his rented limousine.

Atlanta Deputy Police Chief C. B. Jackson said that Lewis and others in his party "were witnessed punching and wrestling with both victims. Shortly before Lollar was fatally stabbed, he was seen fighting with Ray Lewis."

Defense lawyers have portrayed Lewis as a "horrified bystander" who tried to cooperate with police; authorities have publicly branded him a liar who obstructed their investigation.

These two views of Lewis will come up against each other today in a downtown Atlanta courtroom, where a normally perfunctory bail review could become akin to a trial.

Georgia law, unlike in Maryland, allows a judge to consider the "probability of conviction" in setting bail along with the more standard considerations of risk of flight and likelihood of committing violence.

"We will prove his absolute innocence at Monday's bond hearing," said lead defense attorney Edward T. M. Garland.

Today's courtroom drama will bring together a cast of characters that includes an army of reporters and photographers; fiery defense lawyers who believe their star client is being railroaded; angry prosecutors who believe the defendant's celebrity status is winning him undeserved sympathy; relatives of the victims; Lewis' family and friends; and Ravens owner Art Modell.

"I want to see him out of jail," Modell said Friday.

Defense lawyers will try to win Lewis' freedom using the newly submitted material. It contains the usual biographical information on Lewis and more than a dozen letters of support -- from the Ravens head coach and NFL players to Baltimore real estate agent Thomas F. Miller, who praised Lewis for personally delivering an autographed jersey when he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

"You can almost hear the railroad whistle blowing as it goes down the track," Garland said, comparing Lewis to Richard Jewell, who was wrongly accused by Atlanta police in the 1996 Olympic Park bombing. "This time it's Ray Lewis. History is repeating itself."

There is a signed statement from Kwame King, whom police named as a witness two weeks ago but have not interviewed. King, of Lakeland, Fla., told defense lawyers that he accompanied Lewis to the Cobalt Lounge after watching the Super Bowl at the home of an Atlanta Falcons player.

King said the limousine, in which two women and two other men were riding, had to park down the street on East Paces Ferry Road because of the crowds and police barricades. The group went into the club and sat near a window.

About 3: 30 a.m., Lewis' party left and walked back toward the limousine. As Lewis and the women were getting inside, King heard the sound of a champagne bottle being smashed over Oakley's head, he said.

"At no time did he see Ray Lewis punch or hit anyone," Garland's lawyers concluded in a summary of King's statement.

Jaye Roberts, one of the women in Lewis' party, said that six men followed them out of the club -- she thought they were trying to rob them -- and started the fight.

"She saw Ray go over to the group and pull a man off `Shorty,' " a summary of her statement says. She did not identify Shorty.

Todd Whitehead, a bystander inside the Cobalt, told the defense team that he had seen the fight.

"I recognized one person as Ray Lewis," he said. "He was clearly acting as a peacemaker."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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