Lewis asks for a trial of his own; Rarely permitted, it'd make incriminating co-defendants easier; Deadline brings many filings; Raven says victims attacked his group

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ray Lewis yesterday asked a judge to sever his case from that of two co-defendants charged with assault and murder in Atlanta, a decision that would give the Ravens linebacker his own trial.

Separating the defendants is rarely permitted in such cases, but would make it easier for Lewis' attorneys to mount a defense that incriminates the other two men -- although the lawyers deny that is their intent.

In a barrage of motions filed to meet yesterday's court-imposed deadline, Lewis also asserted that the two murder victims and their friends attacked his group. And he asked the judge to bar accusations of assaults lodged against him -- but never upheld in court -- by women in three separate incidents stretching back to his college days.

Other pre-trial filings yesterday by lawyers in the case suggest the jury may see a fair amount of mud-slinging: extensive requests were made for criminal histories, evidence of drug use and other matters designed to malign the credibility and character of the victims and key witnesses.

One attorney went so far as to ask the judge to keep anyone from referring to the dead men as "victims" during the trial.

Lewis is charged with assault and murder in connection with an early-morning brawl in Atlanta's nightclub district on Jan. 31, the day after the Super Bowl. Two Decatur, Ga., men were found dead of stab wounds to the heart: Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24.

The trial is scheduled to begin May 15. Two of Lewis' companions that morning, Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore, and Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami, face identical charges.

Lewis' attorneys say that a joint trial would "hinder a fair determination of each defendant's guilt or innocence" and have requested a separate proceeding. Oakley's attorney made a similar request several months ago.

"It is nothing more than an effort to have a trial where the focus can be on Ray's innocence rather than any side issues, such as the guilt or innocence of the co-defendants," said one of Lewis' lawyers, Ronald Cherry of Baltimore.

"Nothing more should be read into it," Cherry said.

However, one legal expert not connected with the case said defendants often seek such "severance" to encourage the jury to pin the blame on others who are involved.

"You wouldn't want to be in a courtroom pointing a finger at someone when he could point the finger back at you," said Jerome Froelich, a prominent Atlanta defense attorney and former prosecutor.

Judges rarely grant severance requests, especially when the co-defendants face identical charges, because of the cost and inefficiency of holding separate trials, he said. "It's a very hard thing to achieve," Froelich said.

Attorneys for all three defendants also filed requests for the judge to order police and prosecutors to turn over details of the criminal backgrounds of the victims and witnesses. Both men had records for minor drug offenses. In addition, Baker, at the time of his death, was wanted for allegedly violating parole on a weapons charge. Marijuana was found in his pockets after he died.

Oakley's attorney, Bruce Harvey of Atlanta, has asked the judge to keep witnesses or prosecutors from calling Lollar or Baker "victims."

"The question of whether or not Messrs Baker and Lollar are indeed 'victim[s]' is the ultimate question for the jury," Harvey wrote in his filing, alleging that Oakley was a victim of aggression by one of the dead men. Witnesses have said that Baker smashed a champagne bottle over Oakley's head early in the scuffle.

Lewis' attorneys, led by Edward T.M. Garland of Atlanta, asserted in one filing yesterday that the football player and his friends were assaulted by Lollar and Baker and their cohorts, possibly in an attempt to rob the Lewis group. Lewis claims he never held a knife or threw a punch in the melee, and merely tried to act as a peacemaker.

Relatives and friends of Lollar and Baker say they were peaceable men unlikely to pick a fight with a larger group that included a pro football player.

The defense team also is seeking to subpoena a friend of the victims to testify on Lewis' behalf. Christopher Shinholster's written statement to police says he saw Baker hit Oakley over the head with a bottle, and that Lewis "just stood there" when Shinholster asked him to get involved in breaking up the fight.

The Akron man accompanied Baker and Lollar to the nightclub district and was one of the witnesses interviewed by Atlanta police. He has refused to meet with investigators hired by Lewis, according to court documents.

In another motion, Lewis' legal team asked the judge to keep prosecutors from using the player's brief statement to police on Jan. 31 -- when he said he could not recall the names of most of the people he was with that morning.

The slow pace of evidence-sharing was a topic of several motions by the defendants. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alice B. Bonner had ordered the prosecutors to turn over all their evidence to the defense by March 25, to allow for trial preparation. But several key pieces of evidence were turned over after the deadline. In some cases, material such as items seized during a search of Lewis' Baltimore County home has still not been submitted, the attorneys said.

Oakley's attorney asked the judge to prevent the prosecution from using anything it has not turned over to the defense.

Erik Friedly, a spokesman for the Fulton County district attorneys office, did not respond to a request for comment on the complaints.

Steven H. Sadow, a lawyer representing Sweeting, also requested any internal reviews of investigators in the case. One of the chief detectives in the case allegedly made racist comments during an interview with one witness, and is the subject of an internal review by the Atlanta Police Department.

Pre-trial hearings are scheduled for May 1 and 2 when the judge may consider some of the issues raised in yesterday's filings.

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