Jamal Lewis has reached a plea-bargain agreement in his drug conspiracy case under which the star Ravens running back will receive four to six months in prison - a term he almost certainly will not begin serving until after the football season is over, according to people familiar with the agreement.
The deal, reached with federal prosecutors earlier this week but not yet publicly announced, means that Lewis, last year's NFL Offensive Player of the Year, will not have to submit to a scheduled November trial in which he would have faced a career-ending sentence of at least 10 years if convicted on the principal charge.
Lewis' attorneys had long maintained that he was innocent of charges that he brokered a cocaine deal in 2000 for a friend in Atlanta. But they acknowledged that there was risk in going before a jury.
The NFL has been informed of the agreement.
U.S. District Judge Orinda D. Evans is expected to hold a public hearing on the deal late next week. Her approval is needed before the sentence can be finalized. But people familiar with the negotiations said they had little concern that she would reject the pact. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they suggested she knew about it in advance.
The agreement was reached after several weeks of talks. As the discussions moved forward, Lewis continued to play football. He started slowly but had his best game of the season last Sunday, rushing for 186 yards in a 23-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Last year, he rushed for 2,066 yards, second-best in NFL history
While Lewis now knows his verdict from the legal system, the National Football League punishment is uncertain.
League officials declined to comment, but Lewis could face significant punishment - potentially a suspension of more than a year and/or an extensive fine - based on the league's substance-abuse policy.
Lewis, 25, has had at least two violations of the substance-abuse policy in his five-year NFL career. He was suspended without pay for four games in 2001, when he missed the season with a torn knee ligament.
Lewis said yesterday that he knew "nothing" of the agreement. He has repeatedly said that he is innocent.
His sentence is expected to be on the low end of four to six months and could include time in a halfway house, a source said.
Sentencing won't be formally done until after Angelo Jackson, a co-defendant in the case, has completed his trial. It is scheduled to begin Nov. 1. After that, there is an average six-week lag time for the Bureau of Prisons to process paperwork and make a prison assignment.
Because the plea agreement was not yet public last night, it was uncertain precisely which charge or charges Lewis would plead guilty to.
Don Samuel and Ed Garland, attorneys for Lewis, declined to comment. Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based U.S. attorney's office, also said he could not comment.
The charges against Lewis date to June 2000 - before he began his NFL career - and stem from a drug investigation in an Atlanta housing project.
In the original February indictment, Lewis was charged with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms of cocaine and using a cell phone in the commission of a drug crime.
Sun staff writer Ken Murray contributed to this article.