Investigate, then prosecute

Bungled Lewis trial: Atlanta prosecutors, police rushed to indict before they had all the evidence.

June 14, 2000

OVERZEALOUS prosecutors created an embarrassing fiasco in what Baltimoreans call the Ray Lewis murder case, and Atlantans call the Buckhead stabbings.

Remember the comments of the football star's lawyer the day Mr. Lewis was indicted? Attorney Ed Garland called it "a completely inadequate, careless and sloppy indictment" in which prosecutors had "indicted before investigating." Time proved him right.

Mr. Lewis copped a misdemeanor plea for lying to police and a jury cleared two other defendants in the killings in the Buckhead entertainment district. The whole sorry mess brought back images of poor Richard Jewell, the security guard wrongly accused of the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta, in another case where authorities rushed to indict.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard ignored warning signs that he was about to repeat those mistakes. Instead of a thorough investigation, Mr. Howard quickly indicted the Ravens star and his two pals. From that point on, it became a comedy of errors.

Noted one of the defendants' lawyers, "If two guilty men went free, it's because Paul Howard didn't do his job."

Defense lawyers seemed to know more about this case than police and prosecutors. Witnesses changed their stories. The D.A. was repeatedly scolded by the judge. And prosecutors took a hard line against Mr. Lewis because he had misled them. The result: a murder indictment not backed up by solid evidence.

This debacle is a cautionary tale for other prosecutors: Don't indict before an exhaustive investigation turns up concrete evidence. And don't go to trial with a case that isn't strong enough to withstand the unexpected.

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