Ravens readying for J. Lewis' exit

Billick expects NFL word next week on guilty plea

back may be suspended by Oct. 24


October 06, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Ravens star Jamal Lewis is expected to be suspended for two to four games following his guilty plea tomorrow in a drug conspiracy case, a probability that is forcing the team to prepare for his absence as early as the game against Buffalo on Oct. 24.

Ravens coach Brian Billick said he expects the NFL's punishment - whatever it may be - to be announced during the team's bye week that begins after Sunday night's game against the Washington Redskins.

Word of the running back's likely suspension came during a tumultuous period in which his attorneys ended weeks of negotiations with federal prosecutors in Atlanta and reached a deal last Thursday, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. Under terms of the deal, he would receive four months at a yet-to-be-determined minimum-security prison and two months either at a halfway house or in home confinement, the sources said.

U.S. District Judge Orinda D. Evans gave preliminary approval to the tentative plea bargain last week, and Lewis is to formally enter his guilty plea in her courtroom tomorrow to a charge of using a cell phone to facilitate a drug transaction.

His plea triggers an NFL disciplinary procedure for a violation of the law related to substance abuse. The provision, negotiated with the players union as part of the collective bargaining agreement, will normally subject a player "to discipline up to and including suspension without pay for four regular and/or postseason games for a first violation."

The program differs from that involving actual substance abuse by a player, which Lewis has twice triggered.

Lewis will have the right to appeal when his suspension is announced but may choose not to, and the Ravens said that decision will be up to him.

Lewis' prison term is not expected to begin until after the NFL season is over. He has not yet missed any games or practices because of his legal problems, which began with his February indictment on charges that he brokered a cocaine deal for Angelo Jackson, a hometown Atlanta friend. He began the season slowly, but rushed for 186 yards in his third game and had 15 carries for 73 yards in the fourth contest - Monday night's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Tomorrow's hearing will not affect Lewis' availability for Sunday's game in Washington. Lewis, 25, is expected to fly back from Atlanta shortly after entering his plea, which, barring complications, is expected to take less than a half-hour.

"I'm comfortable that he'll have enough time to be ready for Sunday's game," Billick said. "We'll catch him up very quickly. With what we'll be able to get done Friday and Saturday, we're comfortable with the fact that he'll be able to go out and perform on Sunday in Washington."

As for the anticipated suspension, Billick said he "would guess there might be some resolution during the bye [next week]."

One of Lewis' attorneys, Don Samuel, declined to comment. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello could not be reached last night.

After being indicted in February, Lewis turned himself in to FBI officials and was released on $500,000 bond. He pleaded not guilty and said he wanted fans to know that he is innocent.

He has said little about his case since. But the Ravens' organization said yesterday it wanted the public to know it backs Lewis.

"I would suggest that you all wait and see what the circumstances are before you rush to judgment or comment because there are some particular circumstances of which I think you'll see why we hold firm to our belief in Jamal," Billick said. "You'll see why our support is so strong for Jamal in that this clearly was a 20-year-old young man, [a] junior in college five years ago, that had a serious lapse in judgment, but not to the degree that people are portending right now."

The charges against Lewis date to 2000 and stem from a drug investigation in an Atlanta public housing project. The government accused him of introducing Jackson and two co-conspirators, Keaton Lamar Johnson and Neyaunte Stallings, to a woman so the three men - but not Lewis - could buy cocaine from her. The woman turned out to be a government informant.

The alleged actions occurred before Lewis had signed a Ravens contract. The timing could help him to get the low end of the suspension range, which would be two games instead of three or four.

If he does not appeal and is suspended for two games, he would miss games against Buffalo on Oct. 24 and Philadelphia on Oct. 31 and return for the home game against Cleveland on Nov. 7. If he were to receive the maximum suspension, he would miss playing against Cleveland as well as against the New York Jets on Nov. 14.

Lewis 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.

He had been scheduled to stand trial on Nov. 1. The trial of Jackson, his co-defendant, is still scheduled to begin on that date, and Lewis might be summoned as a witness.

Lewis' plea-bargain agreement, which has not yet been made public, does not say that Lewis will testify for the government against Jackson, but does not rule out the possibility, according to sources familiar with the agreement. They said the document says Lewis agrees to generally cooperate with prosecutors.

Sun staff writers Jamison Hensley and Ken Murray contributed to this article.

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