Hurried charges lead to fast exit

Prosecutors' case unravels quickly

June 06, 2000|By Marego Athans and Jon Morgan | Marego Athans and Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Two weeks ago, prosecutors called Ray Lewis a murderer and liar in front of a jury and national television audience. Today, they're preparing to put him on the stand as their star witness - and ask the jury to believe everything he says.

Such is the bizarre state of affairs in the double murder trial of the Ravens linebacker and his two co-defendants, which has gone so badly for prosecutors that attorneys from Atlanta to Baltimore are watching in disbelief.

"I've never seen anything like it - it's almost farcical," said Jack Rubin, a criminal defense attorney in Baltimore for 35 years.

Over the weekend, Lewis struck a deal with prosecutors that suddenly transformed him from a defendant charged with murder and facing life in prison to a witness pleading guilty to a misdemeanor.

So what went wrong?

The case started out weak and unraveled from there, lawyers not involved in the case said yesterday.

It was hard enough to prove who did what during a drunken brawl in the early morning darkness, which left Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, dead of stab wounds.

Then, before they had interviewed - or even found - all of the passengers of the limousine Lewis had rented the night of the killings, prosecutors quickly indicted Lewis and his co-defendants, Reginald Oakley, 31, and Joseph Sweeting, 34 on charges of assault and murder.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said yesterday that prosecutors had no choice but to move swiftly before the suspects and witnesses dispersed. He would have made the same decision again, including charging Lewis with murder, he said.

"Had we not done that this case would not be at the stage it's at today," Howard said. "It would have been a big mistake to wait. ... It would have never been solved."

Premature trial?

But some legal analysts said Howard, who is up for re-election, set himself up for a premature trial. Once indicted, defendants in Georgia have a right to a trial within three to four months.

"They was under a lot of [political] pressure," said Jerome Froelich, a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta. Buckhead, the posh area where the killings happened, "makes a lot of money and they wanted to show it's safe and crack down quickly," he said.

Even in the weeks before the trial, prosecutors seem to have been struggling with a dearth of evidence. At one point they offered Lewis a plea agreement for a charge of assault, which Lewis turned down, according to a source familiar with the case.

So as the two sides met up in courtroom 1B, prosecutors faced a high-priced dream team - seven lawyers for three defendants.

Out of practice

That doesn't mean there's a shortage of talent at the prosecution table. Howard was considered a skillful trial lawyer before he was elected district attorney four years ago. The two assistant district attorneys - Clint Rucker, 35 and Sheila Finley, 29 - are young stars in the prestigious unit that handles complex felony cases.

But the prosecutor's office is largely staffed by young attorneys with less experience than some of the hot-shot defense attorneys they face in court, Froelich said. `They're in the big time now," he said.

Howard, acting as an administrator, hadn't tried a case in four years when he stepped into the Lewis trial. And some legal analysts said it showed in his sometimes rusty trial technique.

"Paul is an excellent administrator and competent trial attorney. However it's clear he's been out of the game for a while," said Dan Summer, a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville.

Witnesses flopped

The cadre of defense attorneys, which includes some of the South's sharpest and most flamboyant, have been doing what defense attorneys do: put the prosecution on trial. Sometimes, it seemed prosecutors helped them out by failing to hand over evidence favorable to the defendants as required by law, which earned Howard repeated tongue lashings by the judge.

But the most debilitating problems came when important witnesses who were advertised to the jury as key to the state's case contradicted their earlier statements to police and prosecutors, and even in some cases helped the defense.

A crushing disappointment came from Duane Fassett of Severn, a frail-looking man who drove Lewis' rented limo that night. Fassett was supposed to say that he saw Lewis throw a punch, and that he heard Oakley and Sweeting confess to stabbing someone.

He repeated none of that on the stand, and Howard didn't press him on it. Later, after releasing Fassett from the witness stand, Howard was unsuccessful in recalling him so that he could put the earlier account before the jury.

"It's inconceivable to me that the prosecution didn't go after this guy for changing his story," Rubin said.

The waffling witnesses left prosecutors scrambling nearly two weeks into their case to negotiate immunity deals with other limo passengers, two of whom investigators hadn't even found until last week.

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