ATLANTA -- The defense team for Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis has persuaded the judge who will preside over his murder trial here that prosecutors should not be allowed to raise past assault accusations against him as evidence of the player's "bent of mind."
"I do not believe that the evidence will assist the jury," Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner said yesterday.
She announced her decision soon after the two sides spent the morning making their cases in a hearing on motions to prepare for the May 15 trial.
But in another ruling that favored prosecutors, the judge decided to let the jury examine evidence seized at the player's home. She disagreed with the defense team's contention that the search warrant was too broadly worded and unconstitutional.
Photographs and other material were seized by police in Baltimore County after Lewis' arrest in connection with a post-Super Bowl fight that left two men dead early Jan. 31.
Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, both of Decatur, Ga., were stabbed to death in that fight.
Charged with assault and murder are Lewis, 24, and two of the men who accompanied him to the trendy nightclub district -- Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore and Joseph Sweeting 34, of Miami.
Bonner deferred a decision on whether to conduct separate trials for the three co-defendants. Lewis and Oakley have each asked to be tried apart from the others. Such requests are rarely granted unless the defendants are mounting contradictory defenses.
Lewis' attorneys were told to file a new motion, likely to be sealed from public view, today. Prosecutors will respond tomorrow and the judge will rule Friday.
Attorneys for the player declined to comment on their motion for severance, citing a gag order imposed by the judge. But a separate trial could be important if, for example, Lewis were to take the stand in his own defense -- something his lawyers say they have not decided.
If he were being tried alongside the two other men, his testimony could be damaging to them. Likewise, his presence could limit the trial strategy of Oakley.
In the matter of the previous accusations against Lewis, Bonner agreed with his attorneys that the incidents were insufficiently similar to the crimes he is charged with now -- even if they happened as prosecutors allege.
Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth A. Baker argued that the prior incidents, including an alleged beating of a woman in a Baltimore County bar in November, were relevant because they refuted Lewis' claim that he was a "peacemaker" by nature who was trying to break up a fight among revelers at 4 a.m. Jan. 31 in Atlanta.
After yesterday's hearing, Lewis attorney Donald Samuel said the decision greatly shortens and simplifies the case. The defense had prepared an extensive list of witnesses to counter those the prosecution said it would call to show the incidents occurred.
"It gets rid of this whole sideshow," Samuel said.
Eliminating early the admissibility of past allegations against Lewis lopped at least a day off the time allocated by the judge for this week's hearings. Both sides were prepared to call witnesses who, according to documents filed in the case, provide widely divergent accounts.
Prosecutors wanted to present the jury with allegations that Lewis hit or grabbed two former girlfriends, both pregnant, while he was in college at the University of Miami in 1994 and 1995. In both cases, the women have rescinded their accusations and charges were never pursued by prosecutors.
Similarly, accusations to police by several women in the Windsor Inn on Nov. 30 that Lewis hit them were dropped by a Baltimore County prosecutor, who said he found insufficient evidence to take the matter to trial.
American jurisprudence generally holds that past arrests or convictions are irrelevant to a defendant's current charges and may not be presented to the jury.
Exceptions can be made in Georgia when the past incidents demonstrate a bent of mind, intent, course of conduct or a few other specific reasons.
Prosecutors withdrew plan yesterday to introduce a past assault accusation against Oakley stemming from a 1992 incident in Baltimore. In that case police, responding to a report of a man with a machete, pulled over a car and found the machete inside along with several men, including Oakley.
No charges were filed against Oakley, and Atlanta prosecutors said yesterday that they were unable to locate witnesses to the incident.
Oakley's attorney, Bruce Harvey, made an unusual request yesterday for permission to hold a news conference. He said statements made to the media by prosecutors, police and attorneys for the other co-defendants before the imposition of a gag order by the judge had left his client looking like the bad guy.
The judge rejected the motion, reaffirming her gag order, but Harvey did manage, through the filing, to express a theory of what happened contrary to the theory that prosecutors filed Friday.