Ga. court date today unlikely J. Lewis' last

He would return for sentencing

witness duties are also possible

October 07, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Ravens star Jamal Lewis may have avoided a trial, but his court dates in Atlanta are unlikely to be over even if, as expected, he enters a guilty plea today to a charge of using a cell phone for a drug transaction.

Lewis could well be called as a witness at next month's trial of Angelo Jackson, a hometown friend, according to sources familiar with the case. Lewis' testimony would be another distraction from football and require more time away from the Ravens, although it might only take a day or two.

In February, Lewis was charged in the same drug conspiracy case as Jackson. But the running back's attorneys reached a plea agreement last week under which Lewis would receive four months at a minimum-security prison and two months at a halfway house or in home confinement.

Lewis' prison term is not expected to begin until after the NFL season.

Even if he is not summoned as a witness at Jackson's trial, which is scheduled to begin Nov. 1, Lewis will need to return to the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans for a sentencing date that has not yet been set.

Lewis, 25, traveled to Atlanta yesterday, where he was scheduled to appear before Evans this afternoon to finalize his plea.

The hearing is expected to be brief. The prosecution will be asked to summarize the case to ensure there is a factual basis for the plea, and Lewis will be asked if he understands that he is waiving his right to a trial by jury.

Evans may set a sentencing date at the end of the hearing. After that, Lewis is expected to leave the courtroom and make a public statement. He will be accompanied by Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' senior vice president for public and community relations.

As soon as the plea is entered, Lewis also faces a likely suspension of two to four games from the NFL. The Ravens expect to hear from the NFL during the team's bye week that begins after Sunday night's game against the Washington Redskins.

The Ravens are preparing for Lewis' suspension under terms of the NFL's substance abuse program, which has a provision for violations of the law involving drugs.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta alleges Lewis introduced Jackson and two co-conspirators to a woman in the summer of 2000 so the three men - but not Lewis - could buy cocaine from her. The woman turned out to be a government informant. Lewis signed his contract with the Ravens on July 23 of that year.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an attorney who represents NFL athletes said that he and others are concerned about the issue of players being punished for acts that occurred before they signed contracts with teams. It is an issue the NFL Players Association probably would like to contest, as well.

When college players become draft-eligible, they allow the NFL wide latitude in digging into their pasts. They begin drug testing at the NFL's player combine in February of each year, before the April draft. Lewis was taken by the Ravens with the fifth pick in April, and the league may consider that he was under its jurisdiction during the spring and summer.

Calls to NFLPA officials Doug Allen and Carl Francis were not returned yesterday.

Lewis would have the right to appeal an NFL suspension. Team officials wouldn't rule out an appeal, but said yesterday they were unaware of any plans for such a move by the player.

Lewis has known Jackson for years, but they are not close, said the running back's brother.

"It's like, `I know you from high school' or `I know you from just seeing you here and there,' " said John Lewis, 32, an Atlanta-based agility and speed trainer.

Jamal Lewis could be called as a witness by either prosecutors or defense lawyers at Jackson's trial.

Lewis also could be in for some awkward moments if he testifies.

As a government witness, he would be aiding prosecutors in their case against a friend. As a defense witness, he would be subject to some uncomfortable questions about his own role in the drug case. He could be asked, in effect, why he pleaded guilty - even to a lesser charge - after long proclaiming his innocence to fans and the media.

Attorneys for Lewis and Jackson declined to comment on his possible testimony.

Lewis' brother said it is hard to tell if the legal troubles are exacting a toll on the Raven.

"He keeps a lot of stuff inside, which is good and bad," John Lewis said. "It's bad if it really affects him mentally. But some people turn that into some kind of energy and it makes them stronger," he said.

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

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