ATLANTA - Ravens star Ray Lewis, cleared yesterday of murder charges in a plea agreement, is expected to testify against his former co-defendants and a third man who could be charged soon.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard dropped murder and aggravated assault charges against Lewis, two weeks into his trial. In exchange, Lewis promised to take the stand and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge for which he will serve a one-year probation.
The NFL said yesterday that the misdemeanor conviction will not prevent the All-Pro middle linebacker from playing for the Ravens this fall, and the team said it would welcome him back.
"The truth has set Ray Lewis free. He was an innocent man put through a horrible ordeal. He looks forward to going back to Baltimore and returning to playing football," said Lewis' chief attorney, Edward T. M. Garland of Atlanta.
Within hours of the Lewis plea bargain, the NFL said he would not face a suspension for his misdemeanor offense, but he still could be fined under the league's new personal conduct policy.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said it might take several weeks to determine the possible fine, pending a review of the plea and of the court records.
Ravens owner Art Modell does not expect further sanctions.
"I don't think they will do anything more," Modell said. "If every player who is charged with a misdemeanor in the NFL is suspended, we'd be playing with four-man rosters."
In the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner yesterday, Lewis was flanked by three attorneys as he stood to enter his plea. Jurors were not in the room and will be notified of the change in the defendant lineup when they return.
Lewis answered a series of questions with one-word replies, completing the formality of admitting that he had obstructed the police investigation.
Lewis had been charged, along with Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley, in the stabbing deaths of two men in a street brawl early on Jan. 31, as the city celebrated the Super Bowl played here the night before. The three men were being tried jointly.
"Ray Lewis acted to prevent a fight, Ray Lewis acted to stop a fight. He sympathizes with the families of the deceased and wishes these events had never happened," Garland said, adding that the situation had "swirled out of his control."
By giving up on convicting Lewis, Howard, who faces re- election this fall, acknowledged how poorly his case had been going against the celebrity defendant. But he also greatly shored up the case against the remaining defendants, meaning he might still win convictions for a politically explosive double slaying in Atlanta's tourist-rich Buckhead nightclub district.
Howard had been widely criticized for moving so rapidly to charge and indict Lewis - who was arrested on the same day as the killings. But the prosecutor justified his decisions yesterday.
"If he had not been indicted, we would not have come to this point," he said.
Howard also said he is eyeing another suspect.
"We are definitely looking very closely at one person who will be charged. I don't want to give the name and give them a chance to get away."
Lewis submitted to about an hour of questioning by prosecutors Sunday afternoon. A videotape was provided yesterday to lawyers for Oakley, 31, of Baltimore, and Sweeting, 34, of Miami.
Prosecutors alleged that all three men got into a vulgar, verbal altercation possibly initiated by Jacinth Baker, 21, about 4 a.m. as the Buckhead bars were closing. In the ensuing fight, Baker and Richard Lollar, 24, were chased, beaten and stabbed.
Lewis and 10 members of his party then piled into his rented, 37-foot limousine and fled, according to witness testimony.
Sources familiar with Lewis' videotaped statement say it could provide jurors with enough evidence to convict his former co- defendants of murder.
Lewis says that he did not see anyone handling a knife during the fight but did see the two involved in the deadly brawl, along with limo passenger Carlos Stafford, sources said.
Stafford's attorney, Dwight Thomas, did not respond to requests for comment but in the past has said his client didn't commit any crimes.
Stafford, who lives in Texas, partied that day with Lewis and his group. He had unsuccessfully sought immunity in return for his testimony.
Lewis, who is questioned by Howard, says he saw Sweeting with a knife in the limo after the killings. Previous witnesses have testified that Sweeting purchased three knives days before the killings, but no witness has been able to identify him as an aggressor in the fight.
Lewis says he saw Oakley punching Baker with the kind of uppercut motions that Howard demonstrated to the jury had caused the deadly wounds.
Last night, Lewis and his legal team were meeting with prosecutors to prepare the testimony he is expected to give today.
Attorneys for Sweeting and Oakley were stunned by the turnabout. Until Friday, the three defense teams had maintained a united front against prosecutors.