8:31 PM EST, January 14, 2013
"Some mistakes we never stop paying for." — Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, in "The Natural," the 1984 Barry Levinson film based on the Bernard Malamud novel.
The announcement of Ray Lewis' retirement and his team's breathtaking run to another conference championship game has caused the sports media and various Ray-haters to try the Baltimore Ravens linebacker for murder a second time. And this, of course, when he should not have stood trial the first time.
USA Today had a Peyton Manning-is-god article on its front page Friday while its sports section centerpiece was about Lewis' trial in Atlanta 13 years ago. Other news organizations, including The Baltimore Sun, have had articles about this, too.
After the Ravens' huge win over Manning and the Denver Broncos Saturday night, I posted a photo of a jubilant Lewis at Mile High on my Facebook page. "Thug," someone (and not a Broncos fan) commented. "Murderer." Some people never let the facts get in the way of their prejudices.
Former teammate Shannon Sharpe had it right when he said the 2000 trial will always be part of the Ray Lewis story — especially because no one has been convicted in the killings of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker.
Had Lewis been convicted, he'd have gone to prison and become a tragic memory instead of a football legend. Convictions of his two co-defendants might have insulated Lewis from the persistent suspicion and unforgiving sarcasm.
But those things did not happen, and for sound reasons based in law.
I covered the Ray Lewis murder trial with a team of Sun reporters. After a couple of days of the state's presentation, I described the prosecution as "sputtering" and having "fizzled," but that was kind. The prosecution was awful. There was no evidence that Lewis killed anyone during the infamous closing-time brawl outside the Cobalt Lounge on East Paces Ferry Road in the Buckhead entertainment section of Atlanta, after Super Bowl XXXIV. Witness testimony against him was thin, contradictory and confusing.
In fact, there was more evidence that Lewis had tried to stop two men in his partying entourage from engaging in the fight that resulted in the stabbing deaths of Baker and Lollar.
I don't blame the victims' relatives for being profoundly bitter and for giving interviews to reporters who want to revisit the crime. I understand why they get angry every time Lewis does his dance on national television.
I've interviewed many victims of crimes or the next of kin over the years. I've observed many jury trials and seen guilty verdicts turn on highly nuanced testimony. Getting convictions, convincing juries of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, is a hard business.
That said, the murder case against Lewis was one of the worst I've ever seen.
Fulton County prosecutors believed — foolishly — that they could get witnesses, many of whom had been partying at the Cobalt, to be clear, accurate and consistent about what they saw in a street fight and that this, combined with circumstantial evidence about knives and blood, would have been enough.
But it soon became clear that there was virtually no case: no credible witnesses who saw the stabbings, no convincing physical evidence.
It was no surprise, then, that, mid-trial, the state made a deal with Lewis: He would admit to obstructing justice — for not cooperating with Atlanta police and for telling others in his entourage to do the same — and testify against his co-defendants.
That's something Lewis, then 25 years old, should have done from the outset. Not cooperating with authorities was one of several bad decisions — more on this in a minute — he made before and after the Cobalt murders.
But Lewis ultimately did the right thing and testified for the prosecution.
Still, the jury acquitted his co-defendants after five hours of deliberations. Wally Wright, an alternate juror, later told my Sun colleagues that prosecution witnesses offered too many contradictory stories. "They haven't proved anything," Wright said. "They never placed anybody with a knife. And the one they found didn't have any blood on it."
Lewis' plea to a misdemeanor ended up as the only conviction related to the case.
Obstructing justice after the killings was a bad decision.
But so was associating with old friends Lewis knew to be carrying knives in his limousine. A year after the Cobalt killings, Lewis gave a magazine interview and didn't come close to owning up to that. He seemed to excuse himself because he had grown up around thugs — his word, not mine — and could not be faulted for remaining friends with some.
That's the only part of this story that has always tempered my enthusiasm, as a Ravens fan, for Lewis. But even I give him credit — and cut him a break — for growing up and turning his life in a different direction in the years since Atlanta.
"I believe we have two lives," says Roy Hobbs' old girlfriend in "The Natural," played by Glenn Close. "A life we learn with and a life we live with after that."
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