Lewis rushes, but image is tough to sack

June 10, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

For four months, he was charged with double murder, coupled with the equally infamous Rae Carruth, portrayed as everything that is wrong with the NFL.

"I can't worry about that," Ray Lewis said yesterday. "If I receive the same press over the whole time I was accused of doing something now that I'm innocent, I think my image will come back easily."

Of course, Lewis knows that's not the way it works, that the media won't spend the next four months pointing out the degree of his exoneration, or detailing how often police and prosecutors rush to judgment with a celebrity suspect.

In the interest of fairness, he deserves such treatment, even after pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. ESPN's "Outside the Lines" does specials on football players accused of murder, not convicted of misdemeanors.

But even if the media attempted to balance its portrait of Lewis, could it even produce the desired effect?

The damage is done. The images remain vivid.

Lewis in handcuffs. Lewis in red prison clothes. Lewis sitting in court, silently.

Yesterday, in his first question-and-answer session since the Buckhead murders, Lewis presented another image, tackling reporters' questions as aggressively as he tackles NFL running backs.

Normally, he is a dull, if willing, interview.

This was Lewis rushing the quarterback, Lewis on fire.

He probably wasn't as contrite as some would have liked. He never admitted that he was going to change his lifestyle. But perhaps Lewis was showing his pride. With all that had been taken from him, he was only going to give so much.

Lewis said he was angry at himself, angry at Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. He also seemed angry at the media, opening his news conference by saying he initially didn't want to face reporters, considering all the negative things written about him.

The issue surfaced again later, when he was asked how he would restore his good name.

"If we go by the laws of the land, the laws of the land say, `You're innocent until proven guilty,'" Lewis said. "Because of what people write in the papers and because of what people put on TV, if you look at my image just going by that, I don't think you ever were a fan of Ray Lewis from the jump.

"My true fans know. That's why I had so many people backing me. That's why I had so many people writing me. That's why when I pulled in town today, I had signs all across Baltimore saying, `Welcome back, Ray.'

"Those are the people who know. Those are the people who said, `You know what? I'm not going to just say this man is guilty because someone puts it in the paper or puts it on TV.'"

The media didn't charge Lewis with malice murder, felony murder and aggravated assault; Howard did. But perceptions often became reality in this age of information. Lewis' attorney, Ed Garland, took pains yesterday to correct one last faulty perception - that his client accepted a plea bargain.

It was reported that way. It certainly appeared that way. But the way Garland explained the chronology, Howard came to him last Sunday and said he planned to drop the charges against Lewis without ever mentioning a lesser plea.

Why, then, did Lewis admit to obstruction of justice?

"At that point, I realized if Ray Lewis was going to be called as a witness and tell the truth he had told to me, that he would admit that he hadn't been fully candid with the police," Garland said.

"In order for him to put this behind him, when he testified, he needed to testify that he hadn't been because it was the truth. It was for that reason only that this plea to a misdemeanor [was made]."

The gravity of Lewis' crime is open to debate - NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn't think it worthy of a suspension, and Garland equated it to a speeding ticket, calling it "about as minor as you can get."

But whatever your view of obstruction of justice, it sure isn't the charge that creates major headlines.

It sure isn't murder.

"Ray Lewis was totally exonerated," Garland said. "And if you look at it, he was exonerated in a way that is stronger and more forceful than a non-guilty verdict or a directed verdict.

"What you have here is the district attorney not only dismissing the charges, but then reaching to Ray and saying, `Ray, come forward.' And the district attorney puts him up as his witness representing that he is telling the truth.

"It's very important to understand the degree of this exoneration. It goes beyond a lawyer getting somebody off or a judge ruling in our favor, or even a jury. It is the man in charge of bringing the charge saying to me last Sunday morning, `I have concluded that Ray Lewis is innocent of these charges. And I am going to dismiss those charges.'"

Garland's argument will grow even stronger if Howard gives the same account when the trial is complete, but any explanation of Lewis' "degree of exoneration" probably will be lost in most media reports.

Is it fair?

None of this is fair, starting with the deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar.

Lewis never should have been charged with murder, but he created many of his own problems by lying to police. If he wants to correct his image, it's imperative that he stay out of further trouble.

People will believe what they want to believe. Lewis' fans will portray him as someone who made a mistake. His critics will portray him as a thug. But no matter what is reported, Lewis ultimately is reponsible for the perceptions that surround him.

The truth set him free in Atlanta.

More often than not, the truth wins out.

A transcript of Lewis' statement and video and audio clips from yesterday's news conference are available on the Internet at www.sunspot.net.

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