A winning season tainted as media revisit Atlanta

January 27, 2001|By Gregory Kane | Gregory Kane,SUN STAFF

SITTING IN THE living room watching Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis answer the umpteenth media question about those murders in Atlanta last year, my son - also named Ray - made this observation:

"If the Ravens had gone 3 and 13 this year, he wouldn't be answering any of these questions."

With one quick, astute comment, the lad cut right to the heart of media hypocrisy regarding the Ravens' No. 52. If Baltimore had had a losing football team, nobody would be asking Lewis a thing.

Mind you, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, the two "victims" stabbed to death in Atlanta, would be just as dead. But their deaths only become important, an object of media obsession, as they relate to the Super Bowl, not a passion for justice.

That's why when Ravens head coach Brian Billick arrived in Tampa on Monday, he scolded the media for wanting to retry the case and sensationalize what should be a nonissue. When asked by some offended sportswriter how he could presume to tell sportswriters how they should do their jobs, Billick answered, "I have the podium, and you are all here to listen to me."

This was too much for some journalists, who are ever the petulant lot. Ron Borges of the Boston Globe took to his computer and delivered this tantrum in prose for the next day's newspaper:

"Brian Billick's first meal at the Super Bowl was fillet of foot. ... Not satisfied with noshing on a few of his own toes, Billick then stuffed his whole foot in his mouth." Borges seemed especially miffed that Billick refused to discuss "that little incident with the knives and the dead bodies and the best linebacker in football taken away in handcuffs."

But Billick has talked about it. So has Lewis. Both said their final words on the subject in June, when murder charges against Lewis were dropped and he was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. Reading Borges' tirade, you'd think Lewis had been found guilty, or at least a shred of credible evidence was provided against him at the trial. But not one prosecution witness saw Lewis with a knife. Several said he tried to act as a peacemaker and did not participate in the fight that led to the stabbings. And few in the media horde that has descended on Lewis in Tampa have mentioned that his co-defendants, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, also were acquitted of murder.

Such details spoil an otherwise juicy story. Why print that Lewis may have been the victim of an overzealous prosecutor looking to put a feather in his cap for convicting a rich, "overpaid" National Football League superstar? Why print that the trial judge chided the district attorney for committing not one, but two Brady violations - failing to hand over exculpatory evidence to defense attorneys - in the same case? Why mention that the same judge had to admonish an assistant district attorney for not knowing how to conduct a redirect cross-examination?

All this and more came out in the trial. Those "victims" that journalists in Tampa keep shedding tears for and tormenting Lewis about started the fracas that ended their lives. Two of their friends, from Ohio where Baker and Lollar had lived, testified to that. Chris Shinholster and Jeff Gwen said from the witness stand on the second day of the trial that one of them had made a comment an inebriated Oakley thought was directed at him. Words were exchanged, but Lewis pulled Oakley away, assured Shinholster and Gwen everything was cool and guided Oakley back to his limousine. Everyone in Lewis' party was in the limousine, which was about to pull off when Baker and Lollar walked up and asked Gwen and Shinholster what had happened.

"Just some guys talking some trash," Shinholster said. "But it's over now."

Had they heeded those words, Baker and Lollar would still be alive today. But no. Not them. There was manhood to be proven. Oakley dashed from the limo after Baker and Lollar shouted expletives and challenges to the occupants. Baker hit Oakley across the head with a champagne bottle. All hell broke loose. Witnesses said Oakley stabbed Baker - an act of self-defense, under the circumstances. Other witnesses said Sweeting was fighting Lollar and another man, both quite larger than him.

If Baker and Lollar were victims of anything, it was of their own stupidity, not of Lewis, Oakley or Sweeting. Twelve jurors so ruled. Relatives of Baker and Lollar, still living in denial, feel that justice has not been done. The gaggle of media in Tampa is doing nothing more than feeding that delusion. But justice was done in this case, because when you engage in street fights over idiotic, piddling matters, sometimes the justice of the street is all you get.

And it's high time for media types to say that.

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