ATLANTA—As the murder trial of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis got under way yesterday, the chief prosecutor promised to connect the player to two slayings with "a trail of blood." The defense team depicted its client as a peacemaker in a tragic incident.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard delivered his opening statement before a packed courtroom and national television audience. He calmly reconstructed a 4 a.m. street brawl ignited by a chance encounter between two groups celebrating the Super Bowl. It ended with a pair of young men being beaten, stabbed in the heart and left in the street.
Lawyers for Lewis and one of his two co-defendants painted much different portraits of the incident, depicting the victims as drunken aggressors who picked a fight that they lost.
No witness has been found who saw anyone being knifed, or who can conclusively say who had a knife that morning, the attorneys said. They also pointed to evidence that men other than the defendants might be the killers.
The lawyer for the third man on trial, Reginald Oakley, postponed his opening statement.
Lewis, 25, Sweeting, 34, of Miami, and Oakley, 31, of Baltimore, are charged with murder and aggravated assault in the deaths of Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24. The two, who grew up in Akron, Ohio, but most recently lived in Decatur, Ga., died Jan. 31, the morning after the Super Bowl was played here.
All three defendants have pleaded not guilty.
"This is not a case about football or football players or the Super Bowl.
This is a case about the murders of two young men," Howard told the jury.
He said the fight began when Oakley overheard friends of the victims swearing and using racially offensive language. Words were exchanged, but Lewis succeeded in getting Oakley and the rest of his party back in their 37-foot, black rented limousine. At one point, an unidentified member of the Lewis group told the victims to stay where they were and that "everything would be cool."
The man was brandishing a knife. In pre-trial documents filed in the case, the prosecutor identified that man as Sweeting. Yesterday, Howard left him unnamed and explained during a break that there have been contradictory descriptions by witnesses, some of which match Sweeting and some of which don't - something that bodes well for Sweeting's case.
The fight soon flared again, Howard said, and Oakley bolted from the limo. Baker hit him over the head with a champagne bottle, opening a deep wound. Oakley chased Baker 90 feet up the sidewalk and "body slammed" him to the pavement.
Sweeting and Oakley fought with Lollar, landing blows to his chest and midsection that match the upward-angled knife wounds found in both victims' bodies at autopsy, Howard said. Howard demonstrated the fatal blows, wielding a pen as a knife.
As he described the violence before a rapt courtroom, relatives and friends of the victims burst into tears.
During a break, Lollar's grandmother, Joyce Lollar, said she had been warned that the testimony would be gruesome. "We believe it happened that way," she said. "We just want justice to be done."
Police recovered traces of Baker's blood in Lewis' limo, including on the seat Lewis used, Howard said. Blood from Sweeting and Oakley also was found in the limo, and Oakley's blood was found on Baker's clothes.
Baker's blood, and that of Oakley, was found at a Holiday Inn near the crime scene where the Lewis group fled after the killings, allegedly to clean up. In Lewis' room at another hotel, blood was found matching that of Lewis, Oakley and Baker, Howard said.
For attorneys on both sides, a key task in opening statements was to introduce the numerous characters without confusing the jury. Jurors were introduced to a long parade of names, including the 11 people riding in the limo and five to six friends of the victims from Akron, referred to as the Ohio group.