Lewis' driver testifies -- reluctantly

This Just In...

May 26, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

ATLANTA - DUANE Fassett, the most famous limousine driver in recent Maryland history, must have missed sleep the night before his testimony against Ray Lewis. More than that, Fassett looked in every way like a man who has not known the peace of good sleep in months, tormented by memories of an early morning of killings in January and the prospect of having to testify against a young man he admired.

In court here yesterday, Fassett's eyes were deep, dark craggy holes, hooded in worry. His brow was furrowed. His hair was slightly unkempt, frizzy and gray. He frequently sighed heavily, as if he were struggling for air, like a guy in over his head. "That poor man," a woman in the courtroom gallery behind me whispered.

Fassett, gaunt and pale, wore clothes that would have suited a limousine driver or assistant mortician - an ill-fitting black suit, white shirt and black tie. He looked at his watch more than once during testimony.

He spoke in somber, strained and nervous tones. Several times, the Fulton County district attorney, Paul Howard, and the presiding judge, Alice Bonner, asked Fassett to speak louder so the jury could hear his description of events leading to the two fatal stabbings in the Buckhead section of this city Jan. 31.

In response to questions about who his passengers were and where he drove them, Fassett stared vacantly for long, painful seconds into some space in the rear of the crescent-shaped courtroom. He was, after all, testifying against Lewis, and he liked this young man - the All-Pro linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens who sat a few feet across the courtroom floor, his back, shoulder and arm muscles bulging magnificently against a tan suit coat.

"I drove a lot for him," Fassett said of Lewis, who hired him to drive the most famous limousine in recent Maryland history, a black 39-foot Lincoln Navigator, to Atlanta for Super Bowl weekend. Fassett chauffeured Lewis and his friends, including guys nicknamed Shorty and Derby, around Baltimore a lot in 1998 and 1999. They listened to rap music in the limo, played Nintendo games in the limo. "They go different places and stuff, and I just drive them around," Fassett said.

And he and Lewis, who's half the limo driver's age, got to be close. The linebacker gave Fassett's 11-year-old son a Ravens jersey for a Christmas present. Fassett had a couple dozen Ray Lewis cards, part of a collection of 14,000 NFL player cards. He really liked Lewis, and, had it not been for a defense lawyer's objection to a leading question, he might have gone as far to say that he loved the young Raven. That's where Howard seemed to be taking Fassett when the judge sustained the objection.

It hurt Fassett most of all to admit, toward the end of his prosecution testimony, that he had been asked to keep his mouth shut about events in Buckhead the morning of the murders.

"I was told not to say nothin'," Fassett said.

"Who told you not to say nothin'?" asked Howard.

"Ray," Fassett sighed, then shot a glance at the linebacker, turned away and put his hand to his mouth.

"That poor man," the spectator behind me said again. But here's the thing about this important witness for the prosecution: As deeply troubled as he appeared - forced to testify against a celebrated athlete he admired - Fassett's testimony could not be said to cause major damage to Ray Lewis's defense. In fact, it might have been a bonus.

Standing outside his Navigator on East Paces Ferry Road, just down the street from the Cobalt Lounge, Fassett saw Ray Lewis, his big right arm against the chest of Reginald "Derby" Oakley, pulling his friend away from trouble. Leaving the Cobalt moments earlier, the Lewis crowd had exchanged drunken, angry words with a group of young men from Ohio, and Lewis, by Fassett's description, was trying to avoid a fight. He pulled Oakley away from a challenger; he yelled to another friend and co-defendant, Joseph "Shorty" Sweeting, to get in the limousine. At one point, Fassett, standing there silently under the street lamps, saw Lewis raise his fist. But he didn't see him land a punch.

So as troubled as Duane Fassett appeared, his story from the witness stand yesterday was by no means a traumatic blow to the legal fortunes of the young football player he admired.

Lewis' lead defense attorney, Edward Garland, was only too happy to exploit this.

Fassett hadn't seen Ray Lewis attack anyone, had he? He hadn't seen Ray Lewis land a punch, had he?

And for once Duane Fassett seemed pleased to be asked a question, and he was only too happy to reply: "No sir, not that I could see, not at all."

"That's all the questions I have," Garland said.

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