Media blitz probably won't sack judge

Bonner, who will preside over Lewis murder trial, viewed as evenhanded

February 18, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The judge who has been assigned to preside over the Ray Lewis murder trial is regarded as an evenhanded arbitrator who is not likely to get caught up in the glare of a high-profile case involving a football star.

Besides, Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner is a baseball fan. She has had season tickets to the Atlanta Braves for nearly 20 years.

Now, through a random computer pick made public Wednesday, the 60-year-old latecomer to the legal profession will oversee a murder case involving the Ravens linebacker, a team of flamboyant defense lawyers and grandstanding prosecutors.

"She won't let the publicity get in the way of the case," said her best friend, Mary Ann Oakley, who practiced law with her for more than a decade. "She will make every effort to do it right."

Friends said Bonner decided to become a lawyer after her two children had gone off to college. She graduated from Atlanta's Emory University School of Law and was admitted to the Georgia Bar in 1979, when she was 39.

In a criminal case, she once told a young defendant: "Is this something your mother would be proud of?"

One critic of Bonner's is a lawyer who has gone up against her several times in the courtroom on civil tax matters. He describes her as ultra-liberal.

Atlanta attorney Robert Proctor said Bonner "has never seen a government policy she doesn't like." In December, Bonner ruled the city of Roswell, Ga., could annex 3,000 acres of unincorporated Fulton County. Proctor represented a community activist in the area who claimed the takeover was illegal and would cost him more in taxes.

The judge declined to be interviewed Wednesday.

In the Lewis case, Bonner already has a challenge, as the normal legal process has been altered. The judge handling Lewis' bail hearing on Monday acknowledged that the day-long proceeding, which resembled a mini-trial, was unusual, as was its timing just a few days after the star player was indicted.

Bonner has now been assigned the case permanently. Her tasks include setting an arraignment date, then possibly bail hearings for two of Lewis' acquaintances and co-defendants, Reginald Oakley of Baltimore and Joseph L. Sweeting of Miami.

The three defendants are charged in the Jan. 31 stabbing deaths of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker outside a trendy nightclub after the Super Bowl, which was in Atlanta.

A crush of media has covered the case, drawn by murder charges filed against the highest-paid linebacker in football and sensational details that include Lewis' association with felons, pricey nightclubs, a fleeing stretch limo and police assertions that he purposely obstructed the investigation.

It will be up to Bonner to sort through the rhetoric to ensure a jury can render a just verdict.

"They'll get a fair trial," said Georgia State Judge Charles L. Carnes, who recommended Bonner for a judgeship in 1990.

She has handled at least one celebrity case. In 1994, Rap singer Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes pleaded guilty in Bonner's courtroom to burning down the mansion of Atlanta Falcons receiver Andre Rison, who was Lopes' boyfriend.

Bonner sentenced the 23-year-old singer to a halfway house, five years probation and a $10,000 fine. "People could have died, other houses could have burned, and there's just no way to get around that," the judge told Lopes.

Bonner was born in 1940 and earned a bachelor's degree from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Ashland, Va. She married John Bonner, an anesthesiologist. They have two children. One is a lawyer; the other a teacher.

After graduating from law school, she joined a small firm in which Mary Ann Oakley was a partner. The two focused on women's discrimination cases and often represented workers who felt wronged by their bosses.

Former Georgia Gov. Joe Frank Harris appointed Bonner to a state judgeship in 1990.

Rising to the bench just 11 years after becoming a lawyer is unusual, Carnes said, but he lobbied for her in the contentious political battles that play out across the state for judgeships. She overcame 30 applicants for her post.

After overseeing civil matters and misdemeanor criminal cases, she moved up in 1994, becoming one of 17 superior court judges. Though appointed to an open seat, she had to run for election in 1996. She won unopposed.

The primary, which generally decides the victor, is in May -- meaning the Lewis trial could occur during a political campaign.

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