Witness has criminal record

Lewis' attorneys sure to attempt to discredit any testimony by Gwen

March 30, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

A key prosecution witness in the murder case against Ray Lewis has been in trouble with the law, a fact that defense attorneys are sure to raise at trial.

Jeff Gwen, 26, of Akron, Ohio, has told investigators that Lewis was involved in the fight before the fatal stabbings of two men in Atlanta on Jan. 31. Lewis and two co-defendants have been charged with assault and murder in the case.

Sources say Gwen will testify that Lewis, a Ravens linebacker, fought with at least one victim -- a key assertion of prosecutors. Under Georgia law, a person can be guilty of murder if he engages in another crime, such as assault, alongside someone else who actually does the killing.

Faced with such damaging testimony, defense attorneys often seek to discredit the witness. In the case of Gwen, a rap artist, attorneys may seek to exploit a drug arrest, or colorful lyrics from his music, to cast doubt on his testimony before the jury.

Gwen, who performs as Chino Nino, was on probation when he went to Atlanta and caught up with some former Akron residents, Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24.

Baker and Lollar were stabbed to death in an early-morning street brawl after the Super Bowl.

"You're dealing with a violation under Ohio law, which is the lowest level of felony. It was a half-ounce of marijuana," said Gwen's attorney, Francis Pignatelli of Emershaw, Mushkat & Schneier of Akron. "I don't know anything in his background that would lead him to be anything other than truthful."

Lollar was a cousin of Gwen's, Pignatelli said.

Less than a week before the Atlanta stabbings, Gwen was in a Summit County, Ohio, courtroom pleading not guilty to violating his probation. Within days of speaking with Atlanta investigators, he had changed that plea to guilty and was sentenced to a halfway house.

His troubles began last year when he was arrested with a companion during a traffic stop. Police found several baggies of marijuana in the car. Both he and the companion pleaded guilty to "preparation of drugs for sale," a fifth-degree felony, the lowest grade of felony in Ohio, said Jennifer Richmond, spokeswoman for the Summit County prosecutor's office.

Both were sentenced to two years of probation and ordered to undergo drug and alcohol counseling as requested by probation officials, Richmond said. On Jan. 25, however, Gwen was back before the judge, pleading not guilty to violating his probation.

The specific violation was not immediately available yesterday, but Pignatelli described it as a "technical" violation akin to failing to keep appointments with the parole officer.

Gwen switched his plea to guilty on Feb. 8 -- about a week after the Atlanta killings -- and was sentenced to "intensive supervision" and ordered to report to the county's Community Based Correctional Facility, Richmond said.

The facility is a halfway house where convicts can be confined at night but allowed freedom to work during the day. In Gwen's case, he was ordered confined day and night to the facility for the first 30 days, Pignatelli said.

Gwen was also ordered assessed for drug and alcohol dependency treatment.

Marijuana was found in the pockets of one of the victims of the Atlanta murders.

Gwen's rap lyrics may also come under scrutiny. His CD "Get Wet" contains explicit references to violence and drugs.

The CD, which was released last month, features titles such as "Pimps, Playas -N- Hustlers," "Club Hoppin," and "Crawl till we Ball."

The music should not be interpreted as anything other than an artist communicating his art, Pignatelli said.

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