Atlanta jurors acquit 2 of deaths

Verdict for Sweeting, Oakley takes 5 hours

sweeping loss for DA

June 13, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - Jurors acquitted two men yesterday who had been on trial in a double homicide alongside Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, whose misdemeanor plea last week ended up as the only conviction in the nationally televised case.

Baltimore barber Reginald Oakley, 31, and a 34-year-old Miami man, Joseph Sweeting, hugged their attorneys after the not-guilty verdicts were announced about 3:15 p.m.

It took the jury five hours to reject the two counts of murder and one count of aggravated assault against each of them. On Friday, the judge had dismissed additional counts against Oakley and Sweeting in connection with their roles in a street brawl on the morning after the Super Bowl.

It was nearly a total loss for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. In exchange for having murder and assault charges dropped, Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice and was sentenced to a year of probation and a share of court costs. He also testified against Oakley and Sweeting.

Stinging from Lewis' turnabout, Bruce Harvey, a lawyer for Oakley, said the other men and their attorneys "went to trial together and we stayed together, and the result of the Ray Lewis trial is that the only person who was left with a conviction was Ray Lewis."

"I find that very ironic," Harvey said.

Harvey said he would not second-guess Lewis' attorneys for their decision to cooperate with prosecutors, saying, "They did what they had to do for their client."

The player, who participated yesterday at a Ravens minicamp, couldn't be reached for comment.

Ron Cherry of Baltimore, Lewis' attorney, said: "It's hard for me to put a lot of stock into what Mr. Harvey says. As I recall, he was the one who was going to cross-examine the blank out of Ray, and then got him on the stand and treated him like he was a long lost cousin. And the fact of the matter remains that those charges were dropped by the district attorney because they recognized they had no case whatsoever against Ray. And Ray got what he wanted, which was an opportunity to tell the truth and admit to a poor decision in the aftermath of the incident."

Prosecutors had charged the three men in the beating and stabbing of Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, after a 4 a.m. chance encounter in Atlanta's Buckhead entertainment district. Baker and Lollar died almost instantly of stab wounds.

Victims' families dismayed

Family members of the victims cried out in anguish as the verdicts were read. The grandmother who raised Lollar said she couldn't believe the result and said Lewis' wealth tilted the scales of justice.

"All of them had blood on them. There was so much blood and evidence. How in the world could the jury do this?" asked Joyce Lollar of Akron, Ohio. "We live in a country where you can slaughter people and get away with it. I'm surprised at Atlanta."

Howard, the chief prosecutor, who was trying his first case in eight years, said yesterday that he was "deeply, deeply disappointed": "We thought we had presented substantial evidence in this case."

Howard opened the case May 15 with promises to the jurors to chart "a trail of blood" between the victims and the defendants, who were among a group of revelers in Lewis' rented limousine. But witness after witness hedged on the stand.

"We were disappointed with the way our witnesses performed," Howard said. One woman, who had told police that Sweeting came to her hotel room after the killings covered in blood and with a cut on his hand, recanted on the night before she was to testify, he said. "We were astounded by that."

He said the TV broadcast made people reluctant to testify.

Howard said he had no regrets in striking a deal with Lewis, who became the only witness to testify to seeing Sweeting with a knife after the killings. Lewis said he asked Sweeting what had happened after Lewis' group had fled the scene, and Sweeting said he had hit back at the people hitting him, demonstrating a punching motion with a knife in his hand.

Asked about Lewis' testimony against Sweeting, one relative called the NFL player a "rat." But his mother was more tempered in her reaction.

"If he had just stayed on and held on he would have been found not guilty, too," said Daisy Sweeting of Miami. "I don't have anything against him.

"I just thank God. Somebody's been praying. I told my husband I'm going to Atlanta to bring my son back," she said.

Oakley's mother, Novella Williams of Oxford, N.C., said she had driven all day Sunday to pick up her son and take him home.

"My son and Joseph Sweeting knew that they were innocent. They didn't have to plea bargain," she said. "I know my son. He would never hurt anyone."

Oakley, a native of North Carolina, and Sweeting have convictions on lesser charges.

Steve Sadow, a lawyer for Sweeting, said the prosecution failed to make its case.

The case attracted some of this city's most respected criminal defense attorneys. They stressed to jurors the contradictions among witnesses and noted testimony that implicated men other than those on trial.

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