Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who last year rushed for the second-best total in NFL history, was ordered by a federal judge yesterday to stand trial on drug conspiracy charges in the middle of the NFL season.
Chief U.S. District Judge Orinda D. Evans scheduled the Atlanta trial to begin Nov. 1 - a Monday that follows the eighth week of the NFL season. The Ravens have a game the previous day against the Eagles in Philadelphia, and play a Sunday night contest at home against the division rival Cleveland Browns on Nov. 7.
Defense attorneys estimated the trial should last less than two weeks.
The judge's announcement came a couple hours before the Ravens and Lewis took the field at M&T Bank Stadium for their preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons. Lewis started the game and had six carries for 14 yards.
"I'm just finding out myself. I have to get with my lawyers and see how we're going to handle it," Lewis said after the Ravens' 24-0 victory. "I just think about next week. I don't know any more than you do."
Asked whether he had hoped the trial would start after the season, Lewis said, "I wanted it to happen as soon as possible for me, to get it out of the way. We'll just handle it as it comes."
At stake for Lewis, the NFL's reigning Offensive Player of the Year, is more than missing a chunk of the season. The Atlanta native faces a minimum mandatory prison term of 10 years if he is convicted and the alleged conspiracy is found to involve at least 5 kilograms of cocaine.
Defense attorneys have maintained Lewis' innocence and said a plea-bargain agreement with prosecutors is unlikely. Drug cases are often settled when a defendant cooperates, but his lawyers say Lewis doesn't know anything about any drug dealers.
The Ravens' organization said yesterday that the team is prepared for life without Lewis during the trial.
After last night's game, coach Brian Billick said, "I understand Jamal's date is set. Don't know anything more about it. ... I don't know what the course is going to be. ... There's some finality to it, that's great, and we'll deal with it."
But Billick has said that football requires more game preparation, and that it would be imprudent for Lewis to play if he weren't available to practice during the week.
Lewis was indicted in February and charged with helping broker a cocaine deal for Angelo Jackson, a co-defendant and hometown friend. Lewis also is charged with using a cell phone in the commission of a drug crime.
It is not uncommon for discovery, pre-trial motions and case backlogs to delay a case a year or longer before it comes to trial. In the Lewis case, the judge still is considering whether to suppress statements the FBI says were made by Jackson about the alleged drug deal after his arrest in 2000.
But yesterday, in the middle of a telephone interview with a Sun reporter, Lewis attorney Don Samuel interrupted to say he was receiving an important e-mail. After a pause, he said: "We have a trial date."
Asked for a response, he said: "We'll be ready for trial."
Prosecutors also were notified of the trial date yesterday in a notice from Evans.
Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Atlanta, declined comment.
The case is expected to center on an undercover government informant who taped conversations in 2000 that she allegedly had with Lewis and Jackson.
According to an affidavit, the female informant first contacted Lewis by cell phone and the two allegedly discussed arranging cocaine sales for Jackson during the secretly recorded conversation. The three met later at an Atlanta restaurant where they discussed a price, according to the affidavit.
Jackson's lawyer has sought to suppress a statement the FBI says Jackson made after his arrest: "Jamal told me that she had the kilos." The lawyer has asserted that the statement was illegally obtained because Jackson was not properly instructed of his rights.
Even if the judge does not throw out the statement, Samuel said that it could not be used at trial unless Jackson were to take the stand and submit to cross-examination about what he allegedly said.
Samuel said the trial's timetable likely would include one day for jury selection and four days for government evidence, including opening statements. After that, he said, the defense's case would last only a few days.
Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.