Defense fails to suppress Lewis' statement to police

Trial of Ravens star opens today in Atlanta

May 23, 2000|By Marego Athans and Jon Morgan | Marego Athans and Jon Morgan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ATLANTA - Jurors in the trial of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, set to begin today, will be shown a statement in which he claims to have barely known people he may have known for years - people who were charged with him in a double homicide.

The judge in the case ruled yesterday that a statement made to police before Lewis' arrest - which defense attorneys tried to suppress - was made "freely and voluntarily." It was a tactical victory for prosecutors in a case that promises no shortage of legal duels.

The trial promises no shortage of anything, with hundreds of pages of documentary evidence, 132 witnesses on the prosecution's list alone, nine lawyers at the defense table, and a district attorney up for re-election arguing the prosecution's case for the first time since taking office.

Opening statements were to begin today.

A jury of 12 regulars and five alternates - mostly black and female - was picked yesterday. The selection process stretched more than a week with questions that ranged from what movies jurors have seen to their feelings about police.

Yesterday's courtroom events gave a preview of the legal firepower that will be on display, with detailed questioning of police officers present when Lewis gave a statement shortly after the fatal stabbings Jan. 31.

At the time, Lewis was not a suspect but a witness. Two police officers went to the home of a relative of Lewis' fiancee to take him to the police station so he could tell what he knew of the brawl that left Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, of Decatur, Ga., dead, the officers testified yesterday.

But when the two arrived at the house where Lewis was staying, Lewis said that on the advice of his lawyer, he declined going to the station but opted instead to give a written statement from the house.

What happened next became the issue of yesterday's hearing. Lt. Mike Smith, trying to persuade Lewis to travel with the officers to the police station, told Lewis that he needed to cooperate to avoid embarrassing himself, the Ravens and the National Football League. And if he did cooperate, everything would be OK, he told Lewis.

"Let's not make this an embarrassing situation for you, your teammates and the NFL," Detective James Edward Edmonds recalled Smith as saying.

At one point, Edmonds said, Lewis asked him if he was under arrest. Edmonds replied no, that Lewis was a witness but that he needed to tell police what he knew because when police found the other defendants "they're gonna point the finger at you because you're the man."

Defense attorneys argued yesterday that Smith's comments coerced Lewis into talking to police by threatening his job, career and income. Under Georgia law, statements given under certain kinds of duress are disallowed.

The lead prosecutor, District Attorney Paul Howard, countered that the owner of the home let Smith use her computer to type the statement and that Lewis made several phone calls, apparently including one to a lawyer. He said that showed that the statement was given voluntarily.

Judge Alice D. Bonner agreed.

At one point, Smith testified, Lewis followed him outside to his car, saying he was reluctant to say much because he had been with a girlfriend and didn't want his fiancee to know.

The statement is potentially damaging because Lewis claims to have barely known two men riding in the limousine with him. They became his co-defendants: Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore and Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami.

Lewis has known Sweeting for years, prosecutors say, and also knew Oakley. In his statement, Lewis referred to most of the people with him in the limousine as "people from the club."

But the statement seems to speak more to a credibility issue than to the question of whether Lewis actually took part in - or knew about - the fight in the upscale nightclub district.

Prosecutors hope to use the transcript to show that Lewis was uncooperative with police and might have been trying to protect his co-defendants.

Edward Garland, Lewis' lead defense attorney, said after court adjourned yesterday that the statement isn't particularly important, but "it was something we wanted not to be in the case, not to have to deal with." Now, he said, Lewis' attorneys will have to explain his response to police.

Meanwhile, both sides expressed satisfaction with the jury selected yesterday. The 12-person panel is made up of nine black women, a black man, one white woman and one white man. They range in age from 20 to 73, with the average about 37, said Lewis attorney Tony Axam.

Lawyers not involved in the case say the defense would probably prefer a younger panel with more men - demographics closer to the defendants. But juries tend to have more women because men are more often excused from service due to work obligations.

The defendants ensured a predominantly African-American jury by opting to try the case in mostly black Fulton County. Lewis and his co-defendants are black.

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