A somber Ray Lewis said yesterday he was sorry that two men died after a Super Bowl party he attended but proclaimed his innocence in their stabbing deaths.
"First off I'd like to say that I am very sorry about the tragedy that happened in Atlanta," the Ravens linebacker told a crowded news conference at the team's Owings Mills training complex shortly after returning from Georgia, where he was released on $1 million bail Tuesday.
"I mean, my sympathy goes out to the families, the friends of both the men that died. I know their hearts are broken," Lewis said.
The football player and two acquaintances were indicted a week ago on murder and assault charges in connection with an early-morning melee outside a trendy Atlanta nightclub. The Jan. 31 fight ended in the stabbing deaths of Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24.
Lewis' televised appearance was watched by at least one relative of the victims, who said by phone last night that he did not want to comment on Lewis' expression of sympathy.
"Everything will come to light in the end," said Richard's brother, Curtis Lollar, who lives in Ohio.
The athlete's 165-word statement ended in a way that could be construed as violating a gag order imposed by the Atlanta judge who approved his release. One of its restrictions prohibits anyone connected with the case from expressing "any opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the Defendant "
Lewis did just that. "You've heard it many times before from my attorneys and from a lot of other people, but now you get to hear it from me: I am innocent," he said.
Lewis' legal team in Atlanta read and approved the statement yesterday morning, said Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne. Afterward, one of Lewis' attorneys declined a phone request for comment.
Erik Friedly, a spokesman for the prosecutors in the case, had a terse comment when asked about the gag order. "We aren't saying anything, but we seem to be the only ones."
Friedly, public information officer for the Fulton County district attorney, said it is up to a judge, not the district attorney, to enforce the order and referred calls to her. The judge, Alice D. Bonner, was unavailable for comment last night.
Jerome Froelich, a prominent Atlanta defense attorney not connected with the case, said that the Supreme Court has ruled for defendants bound by such an order. "You can prevent people from saying a lot of things, but not stating their own innocence," he said.
Lewis' Atlanta attorneys did not make the trip to Maryland with the player, who arrived yesterday afternoon on a private jet rented by the Ravens.
The news conference lasted about 20 minutes and attracted media from around the country. Lewis, dressed in black pants and a gray-striped sweater, was composed. Behind the podium -- where the logos of the team or its corporate sponsors are generally displayed prominently -- was draped a blank, Ravens-purple cloth.
In a sign of support, Ravens owner Art Modell stood behind Lewis as did team President David Modell and Vice President Ozzie Newsome. Also present was Ron Cherry, a local attorney.
Introducing Lewis, Byrne said, "We are hopeful that Ray would not knowingly be involved in the actions of the serious charges against him. We believe, as we hope all people do, believe in the presumption of Ray's innocence."
Ravens coach Brian Billick cautioned reporters that any player personnel decisions should not be viewed as a sign the team thinks Lewis might not be available. He said it would be "wrong" and "inappropriate" to infer from possible free-agent acquisitions or draft picks that the organization was not backing its All-Pro middle linebacker.
"We have a number of contingency plans as we do across the board with every player that covers a myriad of things that can happen on a football team due to injury, due to retirement, or players being lost to free agency," Billick said.
The team and the National Football League have not decided whether Lewis, who is under a six-count indictment for murder and assault, will be allowed to play in any games or otherwise participate in mandatory team events, such as the minicamp that begins in late April. He will be able to participate in voluntary, off-season workouts, Billick said.
"Ray Lewis is a member of this organization, he's a member of this football team, and he'll be afforded all the rights that we give members of the football team with regards to the use of the facility and any aid that we can give him with preparing for the upcoming season," Billick said.
Lewis and his co-defendants could be brought to trial as early as April. He is charged under statutes that hold someone responsible for a killing committed by another if it occurs during a felony in which both participated.
Billick said the team planned no further comments on the situation and would decline interview requests for players or officials related to the case.
He stressed that it is "business as usual" for the team, despite the distraction of the killings in Atlanta. As if to underscore that, the team made two significant player signings, one Wednesday and the other yesterday: tight end Shannon Sharpe and quarterback Tony Banks.