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Lewis trial presents challenge for D.A

It's the kind of case prosecutors dread: a grisly multiple homicide committed well after midnight during a street brawl. Fists, knivesand bullets flew. Glass shattered. And everybody took off before the police got there.

Toss in drunken witnesses, dim lighting and some of the best -- and costliest -- legal defense talent in the South, and you get a sense of thechallenge that confronts Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard and his team as they prosecute Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and two co-defendants.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin today and could take a week or more. The trial could run another five weeks, even after prosecutors pared their list of potential witnesses to 130 from the 314 initially identified.

To convict Lewis, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting on charges of murder, all 12 jurors must be convinced that the men teamed up to kill their victims without justification.

To win an acquittal, the defense attorneys merely have to plant in the mind of a single, resolute juror the seeds of "reasonable doubt." That is something that can usually be found growing like weeds in melees such as this one, which occurred about 4 a.m. amid the boozy revelry of Atlanta's most fashionable nightclub district the morning after the Super Bowl.

"In all my years as a prosecutor, I lost more fight cases like this than probably any other cases. As a defense attorney, I won more of these than any other," said Dan Summer, an attorney with Summer & Summer in Gainesville, Ga., who is not involved in the Lewis case but has followed it through news reports.

For one thing, Summer said, the line between murder and justifiable homicide grows hazy. In the Atlanta killings, at least one, and perhaps both, of the victims had weapons before they were stabbed to death.

The odds are against prosecutors, especially when it comes to Lewis, Summer said. No one has come forward to say they saw Lewis brandish a knife, and there is disagreement among witnesses as to whether he threw a punch. Lewis says he didn't, but police photographed a fresh cut on his hand after his arrest.

The math always works against the district attorney, said Andrew Radding, a Baltimore-based attorney who is not involved in the case. "What the prosecution needs to do is prove guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense needs one juror to say no, " he said. "Maybe they haven't telegraphed all the evidence, but so far I'm not impressed by the state's case against Lewis," Radding said. "Lewis is a dream client," said Jerome J. Froelich Jr., a prominent Atlanta defense attorney and former prosecutor who has followed the case. "You have a client with money, celebrity, who is most likely innocent, and you probably have the facts and the law on your side."

Even the prosecutors admit that the men who died Jan. 31 - Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24 , both of Decatur, Ga. - sparked the conflict by making vulgar comments that were heard by Lewis' group. Seven bags of marijuana, apparently packaged for sale, were found on Baker's body, lending credence to one assertion that the victims might have been rebuffed in an attempted drug sale.

What happened next will be the crux of the case. The jurors must sift through widely divergent accounts with turgid legal definitions to guide them.

"Like the classic blind man's description of the elephant, it depends on where and who is describing the events," Bruce Harvey, an attorney for Oakley, wrote in one court filing.

Both of Lewis' co-defendants -- Oakley, 31, of Baltimore and Sweeting, 34, of Miami -- have criminal records. Each of the victims, and some of their companions who will likely testify, had their own run-ins with the law.

As the two groups fought, Oakley rushed Baker, prosecutors say. Baker broke a champagne bottle over Oakley's head - opening a bloody gash. Baker and Lollar ran, and Lewis and members of his party chased them down and killed them, using pocketknives purchased a few days earlier at an autograph-signing event Lewis held at an Atlanta-area sporting goods store, prosecutors say. But Oakley claims that he and his friends jumped out of Lewis' limousine and confronted Baker when someone inside shouted: "He's got a gun." Baker then hitOakley over the head with the bottle hard enough to send him to the pavement and dislodge the knife he was holding -- which he never used, he says. Oakley's lawyer has suggested that other members of the Lewis party, who have not been charged, may have been involved in the fight.

Sweeting says it was Lollar who had the gun, and his lawyer has hinted in pretrial filings that he may present a self-defense claim - perhaps that Sweeting stabbed the man because he pulled a gun on him.

Prosecutors say Oakley beat and stabbed his assailant, Baker, a slightly built art student, even though he was in full retreat. Oakley caught up with him, lifted him off the ground and slammed him to the pavement, they say. Sweeting and Lewis chased down, beat and stabbed Lollar, a barber and boxing enthusiast, prosecutors allege.

Lewis need not have handled the knife to be found guilty; under "felony murder" statutes in Georgia and most other states, he can be convicted for participating in a felony during which a companion kills the victim.

If prosecutors can't prove Lewis stabbed one of the victims, they must show he engaged in an aggravated assault - perhaps using a knife or other weapon -- or actively encouraged Oakley and Sweeting to kill the men, Summer said. "If he hit these guys, that is not a felony," he said.

In some states, a person threatened with a weapon is required to flee or neutralize the offender without injury if possible. But not in Georgia.

This state observes a "stand your ground" rule that permits anyone to kill when accosted by an armed aggressor, Summer said.

That means Oakley could be legally justified in killing if Baker came at him with a broken bottle -- a deadly weapon -- and was not running away. Georgia law also permits a third party, such as Lewis, to use deadly force in defense of someone whose life is being threatened, Summer said.

Complicating the job for the jurors is the fact that the brawl raged up and down a sidewalk crowded with people pouring out of bars that had just closed. The limousine was parked mid-block, near a stubby tree. The victims were found 52 feet away, on the pavement in an intersection.

Witnesses have been identified who were in an apartment building overlooking the sidewalk or who were driving by and stopped to intervene. But few of them had an unobstructed view of the entire fight, except members of the victims' and Lewis' parties, whose testimony is contradictory and bound to be viewed skeptically by the jury.

The physical evidence is also confusing. Blood from one of the victims has been found in the limousine, including in an area where Lewis was sitting. But no blood was found on the football player's clothing, a source said. And police have been unable to conclusively link a mink fiber found gripped by one of the dead men to fur coats worn by Lewis or others that morning.

No murder weapon has been recovered. A knife found at the scene had no trace of blood, and, because of the texture of its handle, produced no usable fingerprints.

Investigators have found witnesses and receipts indicating that Sweeting bought three knives -- including one matching the make and model of the weapon found at the crime scene -- while he was with Lewis and Oakley at a sporting goods store two days before the killings.

Still missing is the gun that someone used to fire five shots at the limousine A friend of the victims has come forward to say that he got the gun from a car and shot at the limousine as it pulled away, then later disposed of the weapon.

But Sweeting's attorney has suggested in court filings that the gun was taken from Lollar's body after he was killed. Shell casing found atop the bodies appear to support that theory.

Jurors are bound to wonder, too, why everyone fled the scene. Lewis' group took off in the limousine; police caught up to it when they got a tip that the vehicle was a few miles away with a flat tire. But its passengers had all left in cabs by then. The limousine driver, who remained behind, told police that he overheard someone in the back say, "I stabbed mine." He told prosecutors that he was warned by Lewis not to reveal who was in the vehicle. "It's going to be difficult for the state to present one picture, a still picture," Froelich said.

Sun staff writer Marego Athans contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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