Prosecution turns to DNA

analysts doubt its impact

Lewis, co-defendants admit being at site

state's case derided

May 30, 2000|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ATLANTA - After a week of backfiring witnesses, the prosecution's case in the murder trial of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis is riding on the strength of DNA evidence, which the jury will start to hear in midweek.

But legal analysts following the trial say even blood evidence may have limited value in this case, because all three defendants admit they were at the crime scene during the early morning melee Jan. 31 in which two men were killed.

"It's far more important when somebody claims they were never there," said Clarke Ahlers, a criminal defense attorney in Columbia. "Blood can be transferred repeatedly."

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he will show a "trail of blood" linking Lewis, 25, and his two co-defendants to the killings. The blood evidence is crucial, Howard said Friday, not only because it cements the defendants' involvement in the crime, but also because juries look for it, especially in high-profile trials.

"When they see the TV cameras and the computers, they expect to see that also," he said. No stranger to those cameras is one expert on the prosecution's list of potential witnesses - Henry Lee, a world-renowned forensic expert who is known to those who followed the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

Howard told the jury in his opening statements that blood was found in various places stretching from the crime scene to Lewis' hotel room, among them: in the limousine that fled the crime scene, investigators found the blood of defendants Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore, Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami, and - in the captain's seat where Lewis sat - the blood of one of the victims, Jacinth Baker, 21, of Decatur Ga.

In Lewis' hotel room, authorities found the blood of Oakley, Baker and Lewis, as well as an unidentified person. It appears the blood of the other victim, Richard Lollar, 34, also of Decatur, was not found anywhere.

Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting are charged with assault and murder in the fatal stabbings.

Defense attorneys said the blood evidence proves nothing. "Oakley's blood is everywhere because he got bashed in the head," said Lewis defense attorney Donald Samuel, referring to Oakley being hit with a champagne bottle during the fight. "Lollar's blood is nowhere except on himself. Baker's blood got transferred to the captain's seat by someone who brought it in the limo."

But the blood evidence is the prosecution's best shot, several legal analysts said over the weekend - unless a surprise witness emerges this week who testifies to seeing Lewis attack someone. The prosecution fumbled through last week as key witnesses failed to deliver testimony promised in opening statements.

Two witnesses who were supposed to say they saw Lewis strike someone did nothing of the sort on the stand. Duane Fassett, the limo driver, also failed to deliver the promised testimony that he heard Sweeting and Oakley admit to the stabbings. The only witness who testified he saw Lewis attack anyone was Chester Anderson, a convicted con artist.

"The prosecution gave an impressive opening statement, and they broke their promise in every witness they presented except Mr. Anderson," said Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor. "That's the cardinal rule. When you make a promise to the jury, you keep that promise."

But legal experts also said it's too early to declare the state's case a flop, and it's possible new witnesses this week will back up its version of events.

Among those expected to testify are Jessica Robertson, a limo passenger who prosecutors say kept Lewis' clothing after the fight and helped another passenger, Carlos Stafford, bring a large bag to a Dumpster. Later, Robertson turned over Lewis' clothing and struck an immunity deal. Stafford, a law student who last week reached a tentative immunity agreement, may also testify.

Defense attorneys and some legal analysts called it an act of desperation that prosecutors are considering an immunity deal mid-trial when it's still so unclear who was involved in the fight.

So far, no witnesses have put a knife in the hands of Lewis or Sweeting in the fight. But two witnesses have described a man dressed in black with a knife. Both said this man was neither Lewis nor the other two defendants.

"Who is this person, and why hasn't he been charged?" Colbert said. "The defense has a plausible argument that someone other than the defendants should have been charged with these crimes. That is arguably reasonable doubt to acquit each of the defendants."

As for the blood evidence, prosecutors will not only have to tie the victims' blood to the defendants, but prove the blood got there as a result of a crime, said Barbara Mello, a law professor at the University of Baltimore. If Ray Lewis was bleeding, it wouldn't be inconsistent with his story that he was trying to break up a fight, she said.

Analysts predict the defense will ask the judge to dismiss the case after the prosecution rests, which could be at the end of this week. Judges rarely grant such requests.

Another challenge for the prosecution will be to get the jurors to pay as much attention to lectures in biochemistry as they did to the human drama of the eyewitness accounts. For the DNA evidence to mean anything, the prosecution must prove the blood was collected, handled, stored and tested properly so that it could not have been corrupted - testimony that tends to play out like "the dullest science class you ever had to take in college," Mello said.

The exception may be the testimony of Lee, who has been described as the world's most respected forensic scientist. Lee makes complex information easy to understand and enchants the jury, said Jerome J. Froelich Jr., a prominent Atlanta defense attorney. "If Henry Lee testifies, he tells the truth, the good and the bad," he said. "Everybody believes Lee."

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