Lewis to plead guilty Thursday

2- to 4-game NFL penalty likely from drug charge

October 05, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Ravens running back Jamal Lewis has agreed to plead guilty Thursday in federal court in Atlanta on the charge of using a cell phone to facilitate a drug transaction, a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse program that will trigger disciplinary action from the league.

Several reports were broadcast last night speculating the length of the suspension might be two to four games.

Terms of the plea deal, first reported by The Sun on Saturday, could become public as early as today pending a decision from U.S. District Judge Orinda D. Evans.

After last night's 27-24 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Lewis was noncommittal when asked about the court case.

Have you heard from the league about possible sanctions?

"No, I haven't."

Do you think you'll know anything more this week?

"No, I don't know what to expect."

In fact, after gaining 73 yards on 15 carries, he said his attention is centered on football matters.

"That stuff is going to take care of itself," he said of the court case. "My main focus right now is focusing on the Redskins [the Ravens' opponent Sunday] and trying to get a win. That's the only way I can be."

Meanwhile, attorneys were fully focused on Lewis' plea bargain.

The lawyer for Lewis' co-defendant in a drug conspiracy case, Angelo Jackson, petitioned the court yesterday to unseal details of the agreement.

"There's great public interest in what's going on in Jamal Lewis' case," said Atlanta attorney Steve Sadow, "and there is no compelling reason for the government to keep it secret."

Curiously, one of Lewis' attorneys suggested the agreement was not, in fact, sealed.

"I can't imagine we have any opposition," said defense attorney Don Samuel. "There is no secret."

An aide to Evans said yesterday that if there was no opposition, the judge more than likely would grant the request.

Prosecutors in the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta declined comment.

The aide confirmed the plea hearing was on the court docket for 4 p.m. Thursday, a procedure that might take only 30 minutes but will require Lewis' presence.

The deal must be agreed to by both the prosecution and the defense, and be approved by Evans.

Lewis, 25 and Offensive Player of the Year in 2003, then would be subject to discipline from the NFL as a three-time violator of the substance-abuse program. The NFL's Management Council administers the program and, with commissioner Paul Tagliabue's approval, will take punitive measures that could include a fine, suspension or combination of the two.

The prison sentence would almost certainly not be served until after the season, although the NFL's punishment may come much more quickly. Lewis will have the right to appeal the league's discipline. The appeals' process could take several weeks.

Under terms of the plea agreement, Lewis would serve four to six months in prison, with some portion of that time spent at a halfway house, according to sources familiar with the agreement.

In February, Lewis and Jackson, longtime friends, were indicted on federal charges that they engaged in a drug conspiracy in the summer of 2000. Lewis was re-indicted in August and charged with brokering a drug deal with Jackson and others, using a telephone in the process.

Lewis' conversation with a government informant was taped, but his lawyers were prepared to attack the credibility of the informant. Lewis has said he is innocent. The alleged incidents took place before Lewis signed his first Ravens contract.

Although it has been reported that Lewis faced a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison if convicted, a criminal lawyer familiar with the investigation and sentencing of drug crimes said that's not necessarily so.

The criminal lawyer said that through certain provisions in sentencing guidelines - among them that Lewis was a first-time drug offender and the promise he would cooperate with the prosecution - Lewis could have reduced the mandatory minimum to a period of 30 to 37 months.

Samuel disputed the contention, however, saying that Lewis would have faced a sentence of at least 97 months on the drug charges.

Still undetermined is whether the plea agreement specifies that Lewis will testify against Jackson in the latter's trial that is scheduled to begin Nov. 1.

Asked if he expected Lewis to be called by the prosecution as a witness against Jackson, Sadow said, "I have no idea."

Would he call Lewis to the stand if the prosecution doesn't?

"It's too early to tell," Sadow said. "I don't know what it is he is telling the government."

Even though Lewis will plead guilty Thursday, he will not have a sentencing hearing until after Jackson's trial is concluded.

Sun staff writer David Steele contributed to this article.

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