O.J. looms over Lewis

Prospective jurors asked about Simpson

May 17, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - It's been nearly five years since the not-guilty verdict was returned for O.J. Simpson, but that celebrated case has assumed a prominent role in the trial of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.

Attorneys, who today begin the third day of jury selection, have quizzed virtually every prospective juror for his or her attitudes on the Simpson case.

Legal experts say many judges, and even defense attorneys, would not allow that line of questioning in most cases. But the similarities between the trials of the two high-profile athletes charged with double murder makes it fair game here.

Attorneys in this case say opinions in the Simpson verdict say much about a perspective juror's attitudes on crime and punishment, race, wealth, celebrity and other matters likely to be central to Lewis' trial."It tells you a lot," said Edward T.M. Garland, Lewis' chief attorney.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he has never seen the Simpson question come up before in jury questioning, because most judges wouldn't permit it. But the Lewis case does offer "some parallels," he said

"It's of limited value, far greater value to the defense counsel," Howard said.

Simpson, a retired NFL great, was acquitted in 1995 of stabbing to death his ex-wife and her friend outside her suburban Los Angeles home. He was found legally responsible in a later civil trial.

Lewis, an All-Pro linebacker for the Ravens, is charged with assault and murder in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men in an upscale nightclub district of Atlanta on Jan. 31. Found dead were Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, both of Decatur, Ga.

Two companions of Lewis that morning, Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore, and Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami, also are charged in the case.

John Bergendahl, a lawyer for Sweeting, said he uses Simpson questions infrequently, but thinks it has value where there are similarities between the circumstances."It depends on the case," he said.

Several attorneys not connected with the case expressed surprise that Simpson's trial has come up and said it carries risks for the defendant.

ClarkeAhlers, a criminal defense attorney in Columbia, Md., and former police officer, said: "I think it's very unusual.

"What is not making sense to me is why any defense attorney would in any way tie the Ray Lewis case to the O.J. Simpson case, because O.J. Simpson is a classic case of where many people of both races believe that a person who did commit the crime was exonerated by the jury," Ahlers said.

"You'd want the jury believing that innocent people get falsely convicted - not that guilty people go free," he said. "I think it's a very dangerous thing to focus on."

Gainesville, Ga., defense attorney and former prosecutor Dan Summer said he would be selective in raising the specter of Simpson with potential jurors. But it might make sense here, he said."Each case is different. I wouldn't inquire about the O.J. case in a drug case or a child-molestation case or a theft. In a double homicide, possibly, especially if there were indications of sloppy police work or police destroying evidence or racial overtones, and you have all that in the Lewis case," Summer said.

Lawrie Magid, an assistant district attorney in Pennsylvania's Delaware County and professor of law at Villanova University, said: "Putting another case in front of them is treading on dangerous water. ... You run the risk of importing into your case all the troublesome issues of the other case."

Attorneys in the Lewis case yesterday questioned 14 prospective jurors one at a time, working at a glacial pace that prompted a chiding from the judge.

"I wish there were a law against wasting time," said Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner during a break between jurors. Later, when Garland, who has been especially long-winded in the questioning, stood to request a follow-up question of a prospect, Bonner said no."If I thought it would be [just] one question, I'd say yes," she said.

The judge is seeking 12 jurors and six alternates for the case, which could last five weeks. The pool of prospects has been reduced to 86, with the judge yesterday sending home one young woman who said she would resent being selected. She was excused.

Meanwhile, prosecutors have reached an immunity agreement with another witness who was with the Lewis party on the morning of the stabbings. RehanaGrant, 27, finally reached an agreement and answered questions from prosecutors on Friday, said her lawyer, Cynthia Roseberry.

One source involved in the case said Grant told investigators that she had been drinking on the night in question and doesn't recall all of the details of the incident.

Roseberry declined to describe Grant's likely testimony, but said it "may differ from other witnesses' ... I think she's not going to be there to help or hurt anybody. She's just there to tell the truth."

The driver of the limousine used by Lewis that morning also has been given immunity, along with another woman passenger in the limo.

Garland said he wasn't troubled by Grant's possible appearance in the trial.

"I'd think that's fine. I think they should immunize them all. Bring them all in and let the truth out," Garland said.

Sun staff writer Marego Athans contributed to this article.

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