Prosecution gives Lewis key to get out

February 15, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Ray Lewis is charged with double murder. But yesterday, the state of Georgia could not prove that he would be a danger to the community if released on bail.

Judge Doris L. Downs granted Lewis a $1 million bond, ruling that he was not a risk to flee, not a risk to commit a felony, not a risk to intimidate witnesses or obstruct justice.

For those keeping score, it was a shutout.

Lewis, 24, could be out of jail by this morning. And unless the state can put on a better show at trial than it did yesterday, the Ravens' three-time Pro Bowl linebacker isn't going back.

Downs, a former prosecutor, said the state is usually "proud" to display its evidence in such cases, but she allowed that the district attorneys might be holding back for trial -- in effect, losing the battle to win the war.

We'll believe it when we see it.

Lead defense attorney Ed Garland has compared Lewis to Richard Jewell, the security guard accused and then cleared in the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta.

If Lewis is cleared, it would be an even bigger embarrassment to Atlanta police and the state of Georgia. The FBI handled the Jewell investigation. And Jewell was never charged.

It's important to remember that the criteria for releasing Lewis on bond is not the criteria that will be used at trial. But the burden of proof rests with the state, which must establish that Lewis is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

So, the playing field is not level, and Lewis' high-priced attorneys tilt it even further. If money can't buy justice, it sure does help. Lewis not only can afford the best lawyers, but also a bond that acknowledges the gravity of the allegations against him.

And if yesterday's marathon bond hearing was any indication, the trial will be a prolonged circus, complete with grandstanding attorneys, celebrity witnesses and endless testimonials to Lewis' character.

Lewis didn't need to go to the Pro Bowl; it came to him. Pro Bowl safety Rod Woodson and defensive tackle Warren Sapp testified on his behalf, along with Ravens director of player development Earnest Byner, a former Pro Bowl player.

Are assistant district attorney Clinton K. Rucker and his prosecution team capable of overcoming Ray Lewis, superstar? At times yesterday, it appeared that they did not even understand the world in which they are dealing.

It's the world of professional sports, where mothers, girlfriends, athletes and owners rally around the accused, and seem unfazed by circumstances that might strike the average person as bizarre.

Take Tatyana McCall, 23, the mother of two of Lewis' children who calls herself his fiancee. The prosecutors hammered her about a 1994 incident in which she accused Lewis of assault. Why? McCall declined to press charges.

"It was my fault," McCall said yesterday.

Then there was Sapp, who cheerfully described the nature of star players' entourages, explaining that they consist not only of friends, but also sycophants whose criminal background might be unknown. Rucker was so dumbfounded, he conceded that Sapp "sacked" him.

Even Ravens owner Art Modell seemed to confound Rucker, refusing to acknowledge that the loss of Lewis would damage the team. Modell suggested that maybe John Unitas would be his quarterback, or Joe Montana.

The work of the state was so sloppy, it mistakenly claimed that a club Lewis frequented in Washington, D.C., was a strip bar, only to be informed that it was an "upscale minority" establishment by Phil Booth, a defense witness and friend of Lewis' from Baltimore.

These are little things, perhaps, but they raise questions about the competency of the prosecutors, and reinforce the belief among Lewis supporters that the case against him is meager.

The state didn't even sway Downs with its argument that Lewis lied to police and obstructed justice -- an important point, for if Lewis could not be trusted to tell the truth, then perhaps he could not be trusted to return for his trial.

Downs pointed out that Lewis had the right to remain silent, and that he called police to volunteer himself for a second interview after missing his flight to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. After more than seven hours of testimony, it took her only 10 minutes to reach her decision.

To this point, Lewis remains guilty only of associating with convicted felons, a severe lapse in judgment, but not a crime. Maybe the blood that investigators found in his hotel room will incriminate him. But again, the burden of proof rests with the state.

Rucker argued that Lewis called his agent but failed to call 911, but the driver of his limousine, Duane Fassett, reportedly contacted police. Fassett is considered a key witness for the state. He did not testify yesterday.

If the state indeed held back witnesses and evidence, it paid a hefty price, failing to keep a celebrity charged with double murder in jail. Lewis will be confined to the state of Maryland, and must adhere to a 9 p.m. curfew, among other restrictions. But the defense's goal yesterday was simply to get him out of jail.

"The conduct of this defendant is outrageous and is inconsistent with each and every character witness that came into this courtroom to tell this judge what a great man Ray Lewis is," Rucker said in his closing argument.

That may be true, but the prosecutors couldn't persuade a judge that a man charged with double murder is a danger to the community, and their next task will be far more difficult.

They must prove Ray Lewis is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

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