ATLANTA - WHEN he heard his name called, Ray Anthony Lewis handed the yellow Wilson No. 4 tennis ball he'd been using for stress relief to Rashid Abdul-Salaam, the tall and smartly dressed private investigator who's been escorting him in and out of the Fulton County courthouse the last three weeks. Lewis adjusted the sleeves of his light-gray, three-button suit and stepped squarely into Courtroom 1B to do what he should have done four months ago.
As he took the oath to tell the whole truth, Lewis raised one of the enormous, manicured hands he uses on the football field to tackle opponents. He slid into the witness chair behind a counter that was holding the large, now-familiar diagram of East Paces Ferry Road, the site of the brawl that led to the murders of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar.
Here's something we don't see every day - a defendant in a multi-defendant murder case testifying against friends with whom he'd been on trial just days earlier.
"I've been blessed," Lewis said modestly when a defense attorney remarked about his considerable talents as one of the National Football League's premier defensive players.
I'll say he's been blessed - with speed and muscle, with opportunity, with millions of dollars, with the high opinion of his teammates and his fans. And he's been blessed - here at the end of his long off-season of pain, tragedy, ridicule and disrepute - with a midtrial plea agreement that resulted from a sputtering prosecution and the ingenious maneuvers of his lead attorney, Ed Garland. Ray Lewis had been blessed with a second chance.
Yesterday was his chance to come clean. To finally do the right thing - to disclose, purge, stand up.
To be a man.
To maybe get his good name and life back.
To do this, he had to face his former codefendants.
Joseph Sweeting and his lawyers sat 15 feet away, at the table where Lewis and his attorneys had been for a week or so of jury selection and nine days of trial. Reginald Oakley, also accused of murder, sat at the juncture of two tables, a legal pad in his lap, reading glasses at the end of his nose. He and Sweeting watched Lewis, sometimes intently, but Lewis shot them only fleeting glances, preferring to lock on the gaze of Garland. Sweeting, who during the last two weeks could be seen frequently grinning inexplicably at the trial table, looked grim yesterday, and he held his face in his hand for long periods as Lewis answered questions.
Lewis' direct testimony hurt Oakley and Sweeting and gave the Fulton County District Attorney his case back. But Lewis' statements during cross examination an hour or so later seemed to patch up some of the damage he'd just inflicted.
Having it both ways, or telling the truth in full? I'll lean toward the latter because, as he sat there yesterday morning, Ray Lewis sounded credible and certain. More than that, he sounded like a guy who was anxious to do the right thing, having discovered what the right thing was sometime during the last four months, or maybe the last four days.
Lewis turned 25 just as this trial started - his former codefendants are several years older than the Ravens linebacker - and you tend to forget his relative youth because of his look: those muscles bulging under the fine suits, the thick neck, the cool, unemotional expression. He has never smiled, even during fleeting moments of levity during the trial. He held the tennis ball in his hand each day as he arrived for court and sometimes brought it into the courtroom.
Yesterday, Lewis left the tennis ball outside with Abdul-Salaam. On the witness stand, he was poised and seemed sure of his answers. He avoided using profanity when he described conversations he had heard the night of the Buckhead killings. "Yes, ma'am," he said to Judge Alice Bonner when she advised him how to answer a question.
So what, after all this, did Ray Anthony Lewis see that night coming out of the Cobalt Lounge?
He said he was feeling "smooth" after several splashes of Remy Martin, gold around his neck, mink around his body and a woman on his arm. He spotted some young guys on the street. He had a bad feeling about them. The moment seemed pregnant with some kind of danger. He saw his pal, Oakley, being mouthy and aggressive with the strangers. He grabbed Oakley around his waist and tried to get him inside the huge stretch Lincoln Navigator Lewis had rented for Super Bowl weekend.
"What're you doing?" he asked Oakley. "Don't you know we don't have time to be fighting with someone? Let's go."
Everything seemed cool for a little while. But the guys in the street didn't go away. In fact, they started to walk back in a group toward the limousine. That's when Oakley hopped out of the limo. That's when one of the strangers hit Oakley on the head with a champagne bottle. "All hell broke loose," Lewis said.