Is Ray Lewis a victim of petulant prosecution?

May 31, 2000|By Gregory Kane

RAY LEWIS was tight-lipped, uttering not a word, when a reporter asked him how he felt about prosecutors in what Atlantans call "the Buckhead murders" getting their butts handed to them before the defense had even presented its case.

The Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker -- on trial with two of his friends in the Jan. 31 killings of two men in Atlanta's Buckhead district -- was perhaps right to be cautious. A judge slapped a gag order on attorneys and defendants in February, and Lewis might be a bit leery of trusting the media just now. If the news reports of what went on in Room 1B of the Fulton County Courthouse May 24 are any indication, Lewis' mistrust is justified.

Two men from Akron, Ohio, testified that day. Chris Shinholster and Jeff Gwen, friends of both victims and witnesses to the fight that left Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar dead of stab wounds, told their versions of what happened.

Both men agreed that Baker cold-cocked Reginald Oakley, one of Lewis' co-defendants, hitting him on the head with a heavy champagne bottle. Both men testified that a man dressed in black -- part of the Lewis entourage -- was on the scene brandishing a knife. None of the defendants, both witnesses agreed, was that man. Where the actions of Lewis were concerned, the testimony of the men diverged dramatically.

Shinholster said that immediately after Baker hit Oakley with the bottle, he jumped between them trying to act as a peacemaker. Lewis walked up.

"You'd better grab your boy," Shinholster said he told Lewis, referring to Oakley. Lewis never did grab Oakley. Shinholster and Lewis continued the stare-down when Oakley and Baker apparently took their dispute to the other side of a nearby tree. Shinholster and Lewis were facing each other when Shinholster overheard Lollar say, "Get your hands off my cousin." He was referring to Baker. Shinholster ran around the tree in the direction of the voice, where he says he saw Oakley standing over Baker shaking him. Shinholster never at any time saw Lewis punch or stab anyone.

Gwen testified that after he saw Baker hit Oakley with the bottle, members of the Lewis party poured out of the limousine. He fought with a man in a red shirt and spotted Lewis out of the corner of his eye "tussling" with Lollar. Gwen apparently never saw Shinholster or Lewis standing in front of him with Oakley and Baker on either side.

Here's how two newspapers reported the testimony. USA Today ran a headline on the front page of the sports section that read "Witness says victim, Lewis squared off." The short, five-paragraph story beneath told of Gwen testifying about the "tussle." It didn't mention Shinholster at all. He was relegated to a Page 11 story in the sports section.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran the story on the front of its "Local News" section. The headline read: "Witness says Lewis was `tussling,' not punching victim." It led with Gwen's testimony but gave some of Shinholster's and reported the controversy in which defense attorneys charged prosecutors had withheld Gwen's statement that his original claim that Lewis threw a punch was not true.

Folks who read only headlines and first paragraphs might have concluded from these stories that some damaging evidence had been presented against Lewis and that the testimony was proof of his guilt. Those in the courtroom knew that Shinholster's testimony directly refuted that of Gwen's regarding Lewis' actions, and neither witness seemed more or less credible than the other. (Both had been drinking and admitted to smoking at least two "blunts" -- marijuana wrapped in cigar sheaths -- before the fight.)

Marego Athans and Jon Morgan of The Sun saw things differently. Their lead paragraph was about that mysterious man in black, the one Fulton County prosecutors have yet to find and who the defense, in all likelihood, will suggest to the jury possibly committed both stabbings.

Athans and Morgan, in my book, reported the essence of what went on that day: two men giving sharply divergent testimony but who did agree that an uncharged and unidentified man in black armed with a knife was on the scene that night.

As of yesterday, only one witness -- a person under indictment on fraud charges -- had testified that Lewis threw a punch. As witness after witness for the state of Georgia comes forth, it becomes clear that the prosecution's evidence against Lewis is scant indeed. His main offense was probably not telling prosecutors and police what they wanted to hear. Had he played ball, he'd be a witness, not a defendant. It appears the taciturn Baltimore Ravens linebacker may be the victim of petulant prosecution.

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