Lewis must come clean to rebuild tarnished image

June 05, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

Does Ray Lewis come out of this clean? Not when he lied to police. Not when he's pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. Not when he still could be suspended by the NFL.

But is Ray Lewis guilty of murder?

The answer is no.

And, as the state of Georgia finally will admit this morning, the Ravens linebacker never should have been charged with felony murder, malice murder and aggravated assault.

The past four months have badly tarnished Lewis' reputation, but now he can begin to restore it by doing exactly what he should have done in the first place.

Telling the truth about what he saw the morning after the Super Bowl, when two men were murdered outside the Cobalt Lounge in the Buckhead section of Atlanta.

As part of a tentative plea-bargain agreement reached yesterday, Lewis will be required to testify against co-defendants Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, the "wrong people" he initially refused to identify.

Twelve months probation, that's what the prosecution will recommend for Lewis' misdemeanor obstruction charge, according to sources familiar with the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

And if Judge Alice D. Bonner rejects the probation terms when the two sides appear in court today, then prosecutors will drop the charges and Lewis will not be sanctioned, under the terms of the deal.

The Ravens and their fans no doubt will be relieved by the news, but it would be tasteless and inappropriate to celebrate when the identities of the murderers of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar remain unknown.

No question, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard looks ridiculous for A) indicting Lewis; B) using an admitted con man to testify against him and C) dropping the charges just when it looked like the case might be dismissed.

But the truth is, Lewis never should have been in this mess in the first place. He created problems for himself with his conduct after the murders, and your sympathy for him should extend only so far.

In a democratic society, lying to police isn't an offense that should lead to charges of murder. Heck, lying under oath has become such an accepted practice, even the president of the United States got away with it.

But if Lewis had done the right thing after the murders - refusing to speak until accompanied by an attorney, then admitting to everything he knew, even if it meant implicating the gypsies, tramps and thieves masquerading as his friends - he could have saved himself a world of trouble.

Instead, Lewis' attorney, Ed Garland, admitted in court that his client was "not fully truthful" with his police. Two witnesses, meanwhile, said they saw companions of Lewis dispose of a bag that might have contained his clothing from the night of the murders - clothing that was never recovered by police.

Now, as part of his plea bargain, Lewis will be a witness for the prosecution.

The only problem is, his credibility as a witness will be just slightly higher than that of Chester Anderson, who evidently committed yet another identity fraud when he testified that Lewis kicked one of the victims.

It's every man for himself now, and the remaining defense attorneys probably would have a field day attacking their former co-defendant.

"Are you lying this time?" Bruce Harvey, Oakley's ponytailed peacock might ask. "Or was it last time?"

Indeed, the alliances will shift so rapidly, it's possible that Oakley and Sweeting will turn on Lewis, accusing him of playing a role in the murders.

The truth probably will remain as elusive as ever.

But in the end, the tentative agreement reached between Lewis and the prosecution yesterday was necessary for both sides.

Howard, running for re-election, would have suffered public humiliation if Bonner had ordered Lewis free on a directed verdict before the case reached the jury. But now the D.A. can continue his quest to bring the true murderers to justice.

Lewis, meanwhile, could have been charged with obstruction of justice even if he had been found not guilty of murder. But now he can get his legal affairs settled, and resume his NFL career without fear of interruption.

Howard's biggest mistake was rushing into an indictment against Lewis with weak evidence. Lewis' attorneys countered by filing a speedy-trial request, forcing the prosecutors into the legal equivalent of a hurry-up offense. It proved a disaster.

The big question now is whether Lewis will be available to the Ravens at the start of the season. NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue suspended three players for two games each last season for off-the-field misconduct. And Lewis, after all, is admitting to a crime.

Obstruction of justice is a serious offense, and Tagliabue is concerned about the image of his league. But any discipline that Lewis receives for a misdemeanor probably would be relatively minor.

It could have been worse for Lewis, a lot worse.

He's 25 years old. Today is the first day of the rest of his life.

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