Lewis trial kicks off, but game it isn't

May 15, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

In every other NFL city, the season begins Sept.3. But for Baltimore, the season begins with that long-awaited matchup, the State of Georgia vs. Ray Lewis. For Baltimore, the season begins today.

Lewis' double-murder trial is expected to last from three to five weeks. When it ends, the Ravens will either be a legitimate playoff contender, or a team scrambling to replace a Pro Bowl middle linebacker.

If only this were a game.

Lewis will appear in a packed courtroom rather than a packed stadium, wear oh-so-serious eyeglasses rather than his trademark bandanna, confer quietly with his attorneys rather than talk trash with opponents.

The Ravens have yet to appear on "Monday Night Football," but they've made it to Court TV.

If only this were a game.

Two men - Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24 - were stabbed to death the morning after the Super Bowl in Atlanta. Bringing their murderers to justice is slightly more important than whether the Ravens can earn a wild card out of the AFC Central.

If Lewis is found guilty - and by "guilty," we mean the definition under Georgia law, not the shrill "but he didn't wield a knife!" defense offered by certain supporters - he will face up to life in prison.

Even if he is found not guilty, he might face suspension from the NFL, if commissioner Paul Tagliabue determines that he engaged in conduct detrimental to the league.

Conduct such as appearing in a sexually explicit mail-order video? Tagliabue could make that judgment, even if the video of Lewis and co-defendant Joseph Sweeting watching sex acts at a party in Mexico might not be admissible in the trial.

That the video might be the least of Lewis' offenses is a measure of how far our standards have fallen.

If only this were a game.

Lewis won't be cheered when he enters the courtroom. He won't be surrounded by sycophants, unless he counts his two co-defendants, Sweeting and Reginald Oakley. And he won't be in control of his fate.

In the end, the only opinions that matter will belong to those of the 12 jurors. Lewis can appear not guilty, then lose the verdict. He can appear guilty, then win.

The most positive outcome for the Ravens would be if Lewis was indeed determined to be a "horrified bystander," as his attorneys contend.

But what if Sweeting and Oakley are found guilty? What if they are shown to be more than just casual acquaintances of Lewis? What will the NFL and its fans think then?

There is much we don't know about what went down outside the Cobalt Lounge, and much we might never find out. Given the conflicting accounts, Lewis' attorneys might create a thicket of confusion, when all they need to do is plant a seed of reasonable doubt.

This trial isn't just about the victims and the defendants. It's also about the authorities in Atlanta and the state of Georgia, about the prosecution, about the police.

The officer who arrested Lewis, Lt. Mike Smith, is under internal investigation for allegedly making racist remarks to potential witnesses.

And Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alice Bonner sharply criticized a discrepancy in the notes of lead investigator Ken Allen in ruling that lawyers for the co-defendants could interview prosecution witnesses before the start of trail.

The prosecution also has shown Arena League tendencies.

Assistant district attorney Clinton K. Rucker didn't exactly distinguish himself at Lewis' bail hearing, and the player was set free on a $1 million bond.

If Rucker's case against Lewis is as flimsy as it appeared that day - and granted, we've seen only what he wants us to see - he and the police will have an awful lot of explaining to do.

To Lewis.

To Baltimore.

To all NFL fans, for that matter.

Jury selection is expected to last three to five days. The prosecution then will present its case, with the defense reserving the right to cross-examine witnesses. Thus, Lewis could trail early, for those scoring at home.

But regardless of the verdict, fans likely will be forced to re-evaluate their opinion of Lewis, the Ravens' best and most popular player.

The trial likely won't amount to a prolonged character smear - Bonner ruled that the prosecution could not raise past assault accusations against Lewis, and might decide that the embarrassing mail-order video is also out of bounds.

Still, with all that is about to transpire, it's difficult to imagine Lewis emerging from the tunnel to a standing ovation when the Ravens play their home opener against Jacksonville on Sept. 10.

Once we cheered; now we cringe.

The season begins today.

And this is no game.

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