ATLANTA - After a four-year drug sting operation, the most overwhelming piece of evidence federal prosecutors appear to have against Ravens running back Jamal Lewis is him saying "yeah" on a cell phone.
That's it. Eliot Ness couldn't have put away Al Capone with such soft stuff.
In a secretly recorded conversation in the summer of 2000, an informant agreed to sell "narcotics to Lewis' associates for a price that Lewis can `tax,' " or mark up for a profit.
Lewis' response on a cell phone, according to an affidavit, was "yeah." Lewis reportedly also was taped at a restaurant where the co-defendant, Angelo "Pero" Jackson, Lewis and the informant allegedly discussed price and means for drug sales over dinner.
There was no money involved, and no drugs were confiscated.
As Lewis appeared before a magistrate here yesterday for arraignment and bail on drug charges, you kept scratching your head, wondering if there really was a bombshell to justify the indictment. There has to be more.
After four years and more than 30 convictions, the best our federal government could come up with was Lewis possibly putting in a take-out order for cocaine on a cell phone?
It appears the more likely scenario was that the sting operation was getting close to an end, and there was no big conviction in sight. The federal authorities had spent the past year trying to get Lewis to give up names or rat on his childhood friends, and when he didn't, they made him the prize.
The latest arrest was the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year and top running back last season.
Wow, what a big splash.
"They have tried a number of defendants, and those with heavy sentences they tried to get them to become informants," said Edward T.M. Garland, Lewis' attorney. "The informant they have against Jamal Lewis has all kinds of problems. Her story will be quite interesting, and it will come out in the future."
Maybe, and maybe not.
Garland was at his spinning best yesterday in an impromptu news conference on an icy sidewalk outside the courtroom after the arraignment. He has already become The Show of this trial, a short Brian Billick clone in custom-designed suits. But Lewis is just as confident as his defense team, and he walked proudly into the courtroom yesterday.
Only hours before, TV cameras staked out behind federal buildings filmed Lewis in handcuffs being escorted by guards. But he didn't look the slightest bit shaken. His picture was far different from the one of Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis during his double-murder trail arraignment here nearly four years ago.
Ray Lewis looked confused and old, with his shoulders slumped. Jamal Lewis wore a light gray, pinstriped suit. He gave direct answers to Judge E. Clayton Scofield III. When he left the courthouse to make a statement, he flashed a smile and nodded his head the same way he does after a big game.
"It is important to me to let my family, my friends, my fans and the Ravens organization know that I am innocent, and I thank everyone for their continued support," Lewis said in a brief statement.
Garland said: "Just as much as he wanted to break the NFL [single-season rushing] record, Jamal is just as eager to take this on and prove his innocence."
The case appears weak, but it still puts Lewis in a dangerous position. If convicted, he could face a 10-year prison sentence.
But the questions about this case are disturbing. Jackson, 26, Lewis' childhood friend, was arrested on July 19, 2000, when he arrived at the informant's apartment allegedly expecting to purchase as much as 50 kilograms of cocaine - which could have carried a price as high as $1 million.
Jackson was charged after his arrest with drug offenses in U.S. District Court, but the case against him was dropped. No one appears to know why.
Garland also doesn't know why the case was reopened.
"They dropped the charges, and should have left them dropped," he said. "They decided to make this case, they were wrong to make it, and I hope at the end they realize it was wrong."
You also would figure that the authorities want to make this case as tight as possible, especially with the publicity that would come with an indictment of Lewis. To make it tight, having evidence such as money or the drugs would have given the case more credibility.
Garland is expected to attack the credibility of the informant and challenge the validity of the voices heard on the tape. He wants to know like everyone else why the federal government waited four years to indict Lewis in a case that appears so flimsy, especially with Lewis having cooperated with authorities during the past year on several occasions.
"That's a good question; you go ask them why they waited four years," said Garland, who said he would prefer to have Lewis' trial in June, before the start of training camp. "The question of what is on the tape, who was saying what, and who knew and what they were up to will all be answered here. Ultimately in the end, it will show Jamal's innocence.
"I'm sure they haven't put everything they contend in the affidavit, and omitted things that should have been in there," he added. "There may be other things to fill the whole picture in. When there comes a moment to release the tapes, we'll release it. There is some evidence that relates to the innocence of Jamal Lewis."
Right now, there isn't a lot in this case that points at his guilt.