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.
"You will be able to follow a blood trail from the scene of the crime, all of the way back to Ray Lewis' hotel room," Howard said, turning to point at the player for dramatic effect.Lewis, wearing a brown suit and a "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelet, watched impassively.
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.
Defense attorneys tried to raise doubt in jurors' minds on everything from police handling of the arrests to the prosecution's speedy indictment. They dropped hints about pieces of clothing, from a red leather jacket to a black mink coat, trying to suggest that prosecutors charged the wrong people.
They also tried to discredit some of the prosecution's witnesses, including Chester Anderson, who prosecutors say will testify that he saw the All-Pro Ravens linebacker repeatedly kicking one of the victims on the ground. Edward T.M. Garland, Lewis' chief lawyer, called Anderson "a newfound friend of the prosecution, a professional imposter who has assumed the identity of someone else to commit fraud," and who is "in jail right now."
Lewis' high-priced defense team kicked off its case with an enlarged aerial photograph of the crime scene with movable metal markers and a computerized projector.
Garland took the jury through the night of the stabbings in a methodical manner that at times took on the tone of a parent telling a child a bedtime story.
"It's cold, freezing, the wind is blowing," he told the jury, describing the early hours of Jan. 31.
His message: Lewis did not kill or stab anyone, use or even have a knife, and did not aid or encourage anyone to use a knife; and unless such acts are proven, there is no crime, he told the jury. He asked the jury to consider Lewis separately from the other defendants, and see him as the man who grabbed Oakley when he was starting to fight and "put him back in the limo."
"What he did was try to prevent this fight from starting and try to stop it when it was under way," Garland said.
Sweeting's attorney, John Bergendahl of Miami, presented his client as a victim who left the Cobalt Lounge laughing and joking with a woman named Evelyn Sparks and was attacked by two to three members of what Bergendahl called "the Ohio gang" outside the limousine.
Bergendahl said members of the Ohio group have described the person with the knife as someone about 6-foot-1, dressed in black jeans, while Sweeting is 5-foot-6 and was dressed in blue jeans and a blue sweat shirt.
"Nobody in the limo saw a knife in Joseph's hand ... [and] the Ohio group never saw Sweeting that night," Bergendahl said.
Oakley's attorney, Bruce Harvey, make a last-minute decision to delay his opening statement until the prosecution rests its case. He explained after court adjourned that the jury had just heard two detailed and lengthy opening statements from the other defense lawyers and he thought it was important to move on with evidence.
The first four witnesses in the case testified yesterday, yielding few revelations. Employees at an Atlanta-area sporting goods store testified that Sweeting purchased three knives there two days before the killings.
A woman who saw the fight from her window testified that the victims were outnumbered and overpowered by a group of large men, but could not identify them.
The trial, which has become the talk of Atlanta and Baltimore, drew family members and friends of defendants as well as victims.
"We're a very spiritual family," said Clinton Stancil, Lewis' uncle, a pastor in Kansas City, Mo., who was joined by Lewis' mother, grandparents and aunt at the courthouse.
For Daisy Sweeting, a beautician and nurse from Miami who came to observe with her husband, son and daughter, yesterday began what promises to be a monthlong ordeal. "He really don't make no enemies," she said of her son. "I grew Joseph up in the church. He knows right from wrong. He wouldn't hurt nobody."
An attorney not connected with the case, who watched on television from Baltimore, said the defense and prosecution got off to a good start.
"I thought Paul Howard certainly painted the proper, gloomy tone and presented enough evidence that leads to Ray Lewis and his co-defendants," said Doug Colbert, a law professor at the University of Maryland.
Garland was effective in planting doubt in the minds of jurors, suggesting other suspects were involved and by rhetorically asking the jury, "Why isn't the prosecutor telling you this?" Colbert said.
"I also liked how Mr. Garland played up his independent witnesses, the ones who will be the tie-breakers between the Akron group and the limo group," Colbert said.