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Next few days key in Lewis case; Raven, co-defendants in courtroom today to debate motions


ATLANTA -- No jurors will be there, and few, if any, witnesses will be heard. But the course and perhaps the outcome of Ray Lewis' May 15 trial on charges of assault and murder may well be decided here over the next few days.

The Ravens linebacker and his two co-defendants, along with their attorneys and the Fulton County prosecutors, are scheduled to gather this morning in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner. They will debate a barrage of legal motions, each designed to give one side or the other maximum advantage.

Among the issues to be settled before the trial:

Whether the three men are tried together or separately.

Whether the jury gets to hear about past assault allegations against Lewis and one of his co-defendants. Police and the defense have scrambled to re-examine old accusations against Lewis, filing new evidence and witness statements last week.

Whether Lewis' brief interview with a detective, in which he denied knowing most of the people he was with during an evening of revelry before the killings, can be used as evidence.

Decisions on those matters and others will play a big part in determining how long the trial lasts and who -- if anyone -- will be convicted, said a prominent Atlanta defense attorney and former prosecutor. Jerome Froelich Jr. is not involved in the case, but he has followed it through news reports.

"They will be real important. Clearly, they will dramatically change the trial in a lot of ways," Froelich said.

Lewis, 24, an All-Pro middle linebacker on "excused absence" from Ravens minicamp, faces assault and murder charges stemming from a brawl early Jan. 31 in an Atlanta nightclub district crowded with Super Bowl celebrants. Two Decatur, Ga., men died of stab wounds in the fight -- Jacinth Baker, a 21-year-old art student, and Richard Lollar, 24, a barber.

Charged with Lewis were two men he had been with that morning: Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami, and Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore.

Lewis has asked the judge for a "severance" that would give him his own trial. The law calls for a severance when defendants are mounting mutually contradictory defenses, something that doesn't appear likely in this case.

Judges are loath to grant such requests, because of the cost to the public and the inconvenience to witnesses and others forced to prepare for multiple trials. Froelich said it is very unlikely Bonner will grant Lewis a separate trial.

If he could get it, however, it would boost Lewis' chances of acquittal. Oakley's attorney also asked for severance several months ago, but he hasn't indicated publicly since if he will pursue the matter.

"It would probably be more important for Lewis to get severance," said Dan Summer, a lawyer with Summer & Summer in Gainesville, Ga.

"If I didn't have anything to do with the crime, I would rather not be there with the guys who did, because of the spillover effect," Summer said. "He doesn't want to be associated with these guys."

Also important to Lewis will be keeping jurors from hearing allegations of past misdeeds. He has never been convicted of a crime, but he has been subject to accusations going back to his days at the University of Miami. In each case, a victim declined to press charges or prosecutors dropped the matter.

In one incident, Lewis' current fiance and the mother of two of his children, Tatyana McCall, told police she went to his dormitory room in 1994 to retrieve some items after they had broken up. In the course of an argument, Lewis pushed her, struck her in the face and grabbed her by the throat, she told police at the time.

Lewis denied that account, saying he pushed her only to avoid being hit by her. He was never charged. In February, McCall testified in behalf of Lewis' request for bail and changed her account, saying he restrained her only "to keep me from attacking him."

But a woman who worked as a resident assistant in the dorm recalled the incident last month for Atlanta investigators, saying she saw Lewis holding McCall against the wall, about six inches off the floor, by her neck. The witness, Susan Finken, said she was told by McCall that she was pregnant with Lewis' baby and had caught him cheating on her, according to a copy of her statement that was entered into the Atlanta case file.

Finken said she reported a number of incidents related to loud celebrations coming from Lewis' room. After one encounter, she called campus security. The next morning, she was reprimanded by a university official, who said Lewis had "made a big stink" to the athletic department and she was to stay away from the player.

In 1995, Lewis was charged in an incident involving Kimberlie Arnold Ford, a pregnant woman who was dating him. She told The Sun earlier this year that he merely grabbed her during an argument and that he was basically a gentle man. She has filed an affidavit for Lewis' defense team, saying she now thinks another person put a hand on her shoulder and that she mistook it for Lewis'.

In a 1995 police report of the incident, the woman said she and McCall had a fight and McCall left and returned with Lewis, who took off his shirt, kicked off his shoes and shouted threats. He then grabbed Ford's arm, leaving a scratch that police photographed for evidence. Police charged him with aggravated battery, but prosecutors did not pursue the case.

In 1994, Lewis was mentioned in connection with an early morning fight that broke out on the dance floor of a campus bar. Two men said they were punched repeatedly while trying to break up the melee, and one witness reported overhearing one of the fighters threatening to go home and get a gun, according to the police report. An unnamed witness said Lewis may have been one of the participants and the report lists him as a suspect. But police never bothered to seek him out for questioning, and he was not charged.

Last November, Lewis was accused by several women of punching and kicking them as he pushed his way through a crowd early in the morning at the Windsor Inn in Baltimore County. Witnesses interviewed by Lewis' attorneys, including off-duty police, said he wasn't involved. The prosecutor dropped charges, citing conflicting accounts, but the women are considering filing a civil lawsuit against Lewis.

Atlanta prosecutors have filed notice with Judge Bonner that they want to raise these four "similar transactions." Generally, a defendant's prior crimes cannot be used against him except when prosecutors can prove they demonstrate a modus operandi, "bent of mind" or other relevant element.

"It is a very dangerous area, both for the defendants and the state," Froelich said.

The prosecutors' goal is to sully the defendant's character. But they risk introducing evidence that could later be used as grounds for an appeal, Froelich said. Jurors can be alienated if they think the accused is being treated unfairly, he said.

Lewis' co-defendants have criminal records, including stints in prison, but Atlanta prosecutors are seeking to admit only one incident, apparently because it involves a knife fight outside a bar. In 1992, Baltimore police were called to the Sportsman's Bar in the 400 block of North Ave. Witnesses told police someone had wielded a machete during a fight and fled in a car. Any role Oakley might have played is not clear, but prosecutors say they will demonstrate a connection between the incident, Oakley and the Super Bowl murders.

Lewis' attorneys are intent on keeping past incidents out of this trial. Friday, they filed a 19-page brief saying the evidence is thin that he did anything in the prior incidents, and they are irrelevant anyway. The prosecutors countered, saying the material "illustrates his temper and bent of mind to act violently and impulsively to settle disputes, disagreements or mere misunderstandings."

The player's attorneys are also trying to bar a statement the player made to police the day of the killings. The police interviewed him at the home of one of his Atlanta-based attorneys, Max Richardson. Police say he was evasive during the interview. The transcript shows Lewis claiming repeatedly not to know the people he was with that morning, never mentioning Oakley or Sweeting.

Prosecutors want jurors to see the statement and infer that Lewis was trying to cover up for himself or others. Lewis' attorneys may argue he felt threatened by the police during the interview. Such statements can be thrown out if they were given under duress.

"That's going to be a tough one to win," Summer said.

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