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Defense fails to suppress Lewis' statement to police

Trial of Ravens star opens today in Atlanta

By Marego Athans and Jon Morgan

Sun National Staff

May 23, 2000

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ATLANTA - Jurors in the trial of Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, set to begin today, will be shown a statement in which he claims to have barely known people he may have known for years - people who were charged with him in a double homicide.

The judge in the case ruled yesterday that a statement made to police before Lewis' arrest - which defense attorneys tried to suppress - was made "freely and voluntarily." It was a tactical victory for prosecutors in a case that promises no shortage of legal duels.

The trial promises no shortage of anything, with hundreds of pages of documentary evidence, 132 witnesses on the prosecution's list alone, nine lawyers at the defense table, and a district attorney up for re-election arguing the prosecution's case for the first time since taking office.

Opening statements were to begin today.

A jury of 12 regulars and five alter- nates - mostly black and female - was picked yesterday. The selection process stretched more than a week with questions that ranged from what movies jurors have seen to their feelings about police.

Yesterday's courtroom events gave a preview of the legal firepower that will be on display, with detailed questioning of police officers present when Lewis gave a statement shortly after the fatal stabbings Jan. 31.

At the time, Lewis was not a suspect but a witness. Two police officers went to the home of a relative of Lewis' fiancee to take him to the police station so he could tell what he knew of the brawl that left Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, of Decatur, Ga., dead, the officers testified yesterday.

But when the two arrived at the house where Lewis was staying, Lewis said that on the advice of his lawyer, he declined going to the station but opted instead to give a written statement from the house.

What happened next became the issue of yesterday's hearing. Lt. Mike Smith, trying to persuade Lewis to travel with the officers to the police station, told Lewis that he needed to cooperate to avoid embarrassing himself, the Ravens and the National Football League. And if he did cooperate, everything would be OK, he told Lewis.

"Let's not make this an embarrassing situation for you, your teammates and the NFL," Detective James Edward Edmonds recalled Smith as saying.

At one point, Edmonds said, Lewis asked him if he was under arrest. Edmonds replied no, that Lewis was a witness but that he needed to tell police what he knew because when police found the other defendants "they're gonna point the finger at you because you're the man."

  Excerpts
Excerpts of the statement Ray Lewis gave Atlanta Police Lt. M.C. Smith of at 10:22 a.m. Jan. 31: Smith:This interview is in connection with a homicide on January 31, 2000, in Atlanta on East Paces Ferry Road. You are Mr. Ray Lewis, a possible witness to said homicide. What happened this morning? Lewis: I was leaving a nightclub, Cobalt nightclub. And on my way to my limousine and while on the way, a fight broke out way up past my limousine. We saw it. I grabbed my people, we hopped in my truck, we left. While we were driving off we heard gunshots. We left the scene and that is basically it. Smith:Who was with you? Lewis: I can't see naming everybody, it was just a bunch of people. Smith:How long have you known this bunch of people? Lewis: One was my homeboy, the others are just whomever. My homeboy, now that I think about, it was not around. The others were just club people. Smith:Who is your homeboy? Lewis: Kwame King, 27, of Tallahassee, Florida, but I think he had left with some girls. He is a student at FAMU Florida A&M University. Had a morning flight. Smith:Who were the other people? Lewis: I told you I don't know. Smith:I need you to come to the office and look at pictures of the club to see if you can identify these people. Lewis: I would be glad to do that when I come back. Smith:From where? Lewis: From Hawaii. Smith:When? Lewis: I leave from Hawaii on the 7th of February after the Pro Bowl. Smith:Do you understand that two people died last night and you can help identify the suspects? Lewis: Yes. Smith:Do you understand the urgency of this investigation? Lewis: Yes. Smith:Will you help us to the best of your ability? Lewis: Yes. Smith:Will you come and look at pictures to help identify these suspects now? Lewis: No, I will not. I will when I come back from Hawaii.
Defense attorneys argued yesterday that Smith's comments coerced Lewis into talking to police by threatening his job, career and income. Under Georgia law, statements given under certain kinds of duress are disallowed.

The lead prosecutor, District Attorney Paul Howard, countered that the owner of the home let Smith use her computer to type the statement and that Lewis made several phone calls, apparently including one to a lawyer. He said that showed that the statement was given voluntarily.

Judge Alice D. Bonner agreed.

At one point, Smith testified, Lewis followed him outside to his car, saying he was reluctant to say much because he had been with a girlfriend and didn't want his fiancee to know.

The statement is potentially damaging because Lewis claims to have barely known two men riding in the limousine with him. They became his co-defendants: Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore and Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami.

Lewis has known Sweeting for years, prosecutors say, and also knew Oakley. In his statement, Lewis referred to most of the people with him in the limousine as "people from the club."

But the statement seems to speak more to a credibility issue than to the question of whether Lewis actually took part in - or knew about - the fight in the upscale nightclub district.

Prosecutors hope to use the transcript to show that Lewis was uncooperative with police and might have been trying to protect his co-defendants.

Edward Garland, Lewis' lead defense attorney, said after court adjourned yesterday that the statement isn't particularly important, but "it was something we wanted not to be in the case, not to have to deal with." Now, he said, Lewis' attorneys will have to explain his response to police.

Meanwhile, both sides expressed satisfaction with the jury selected yesterday. The 12-person panel is made up of nine black women, a black man, one white woman and one white man. They range in age from 20 to 73, with the average about 37, said Lewis attorney Tony Axam.

Lawyers not involved in the case say the defense would probably prefer a younger panel with more men - demographics closer to the defendants. But juries tend to have more women because men are more often excused from service due to work obligations.

The defendants ensured a predominantly African-American jury by opting to try the case in mostly black Fulton County. Lewis and his co-defendants are black.

"I think that we have a jury that can understand the interplay between African-American men and women and the aggressive conduct of the decedents," said Steve Sadow, an attorney for Sweeting.

Assistant Fulton County District Attorney Clinton Rucker said: "I think it's consistent with the kind of juries we get in Fulton County. We're very pleased."

The final selection took about 45 minutes, culminating a week of extensive questioning. Both sides started with a pool of 150 registered voters. Of that, 41 were cut based on their responses to written questionnaires - most said they thought Lewis was guilty.

Yesterday, each side took turns, starting with the prosecutors, "striking" unwanted jurors. Among those rejected by the prosecutors: a black man who appeared to be in his 20s and was a high school classmate of recently drafted Raven Jamal Lewis. The man took a dim view of police, saying that half of Atlanta's police are probably "dirty."

Bruce Harvey, attorney for Oakley, pointed out that the defense did not use all the strikes at its disposal. Prosecutors used all six of their strikes after nine of the jurors were picked. The defense ended with two unused.

"I think the jurors who remain are excellent jurors," Harvey said. "The true test, however, is when they return the verdict."