Tomorrow, on Ray Lewis' 25th birthday, characters will converge in an unfolding drama that mixes pro football, celebrity, money, politics, rap music, wild parties, street brawling and homicide.
Performing in an Atlanta courtroom will be some of the city's sharpest legal minds, including a smooth lawyer born to Southern gentry and a pony-tailed, tattooed maverick.
Jurors and TV viewers will peer into a world of rap artists, hairstylists and small-time criminals, where a famous limousine, a mink coat and a champagne bottle figure in the fatal stabbings of two young men."You couldn't write a book like this. No one would believe it," said Jerry Froelich, a prominent criminal defense attorney in Atlanta and former prosecutor who is not involved in the case.
On trial will be the Ravens star linebacker and two co-defendants, all charged with assault and murder. The selection of a jury is to begin tomorrow.
From the start, the Ray Lewis case has drawn an unusual amount of attention, with continuing media coverage of routine legal developments, Internet chatter and a Web site that sells bumper stickers reading "Let Ray Play."
Court TV will air the proceedings live. Baltimore radio host Larry Young, a former state senator who organized a prayer vigil for Lewis this year, plans to broadcast his morning show from the trial.
Added to the mix will be the victims' and defendants' relatives and spectators who might include Ravens players, coaches and owner Art Modell.
"The spectacle," said Baltimore attorney Andrew Radding, "is transcending the legal issue and the somber nature of the proceedings."
It won't be another O.J. Simpson case. Lewis is famous, but not as big as Simpson, and this case is less a whodunit than a post-Super Bowl street melee turned deadly.
Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, of Decatur, Ga., were fatally stabbed Jan. 31. Lewis; Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore; and Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami have been charged and have pleaded not guilty.
But the players who have emerged since then - from Lewis' team of lawyers and their investigators to the police officer under scrutiny for an alleged racially insensitive remark - make comparisons to Simpson inevitable.
The trial of the football star-turned-broadcaster, in which Simpson was acquitted in 1995 of the killing of his former wife and her friend, captivated millions with its quirky witnesses, fumbling police and grandstanding lawyers.
Lewis' dream team
Leading Lewis' defense team is a charismatic Southerner known in Atlanta for his high-profile clients and flamboyant courtroom manner. Edward T.M. Garland, 58, is said to woo juries with his gentility and resounding voice and nail witnesses under cross-examination.
He lives in a mansion used in the movie "Driving Miss Daisy" and during the Simpson trial he showed up frequently as a commentator on CNN television.
Garland's partner in the firm Garland, Samuel and Loeb is Donald F. Samuel, 46.
No stranger to celebrity, he helped win an acquittal for Jim Williams, a Savannah millionaire who was charged with murder in the case depicted in the book and movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil."
In contrast to Garland's flamboyance, the bearded, buttoned-down Samuel is described as brilliant, bookish and professorial, "a walking encyclopedia of law," Froelich said.
He has written two books that defense lawyers throughout Georgia use for reference, said Walt Britt, a criminal defense lawyer from nearby Buford, Ga., who is a friend of several of the lawyers in the case.
Ponytail and tattoos
Perhaps outnumbered, but not to be ignored, is the attorney for co-defendant Reginald Oakley.
Bruce Harvey, 49, another one of Atlanta's legal stars, is flashy, confrontational and menacing in cross-examination. Tall and lean, he has a long ponytail and seven tattoos, including a dragon on each shoulder, a cobra on one wrist and a star on one finger, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
His Jaguar's license plate reads "ACQUIT.""Harvey is always dressed to the nines," Britt said. "Women love him."
Harvey has a history of taking on high-profile cases, among them a federal lawsuit that forced Cobb County to remove the Ten Commandments from its courthouse wall, in which he was the lead plaintiff.
Recently he became one of the lawyers representing Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, the Muslim cleric formerly known as H. Rap Brown - who incited race riots in Cambridge in the 1960s - and was recently indicted in the fatal shooting of one Fulton County deputy and the wounding of another.
"He's very, very effective in front of a jury," Froelich said. "People underrate him. They think he's a wild man, but he promotes that idea."
Steve Sadow, 46, who is defending Sweeting, appears more conservative than Harvey, "but he has an iron mind as far as facts, and probably out of all of them he's the most intense," Britt said. And he shares Harvey's bulldog cross-examination style.
"We laugh about it all the time, who's the nastiest," Britt said.
"You've got Eddie there, Bruce there, Steve there. It's going to be worth the price of admission just to see those three. I may stop in."
Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard might not appear in the courtroom, but the verdict could affect his political fate.
Politics of prosecution
Howard, 48, moved quickly to indict Lewis and the other two men, before the police and prosecution had finished interviewing witnesses.
That allowed the defense to seek a speedy trial that could make Howard vulnerable in his re-election bid in the fall.
The political pressure will rest on Assistant District Attorney Clinton Rucker.
No Lance Ito
If judges learned from the mistakes of Lance Ito, the judge who let the Simpson trial spin out of control, Judge Alice Bonner might be Exhibit A.
Bonner, 59, is regarded as a down-to-business arbitrator with little patience for rambling lawyers. (She gives attorneys in her courtroom a time limit.)
She has presided over high-profile trials before. In 1994, when rap singer Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes pleaded guilty to burning down the mansion of her boyfriend, Atlanta Falcons receiver Andre Rison, Bonner sentenced the singer, then 23, to a halfway house, five years of probation and a $10,000 fine.
Ray Lewis leapt from a childhood of poverty in Lakeland, Fla., to a four-year, $26 million contract. Prosecutors say he is guilty of murder under a law that says he could be convicted, even if he didn't stab anyone, if it is proved that he knew someone was going to be killed or was participating in a felony during the incident.
Supporters describe Lewis as a family man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever the outcome, his image is likely to be tainted by the stabbings near the trendy Cobalt Lounge in wealthy Buckhead.
The public now knows that he associates with people who have rap sheets, that he appeared in a raunchy sex and party video, that he has been accused three times - but never convicted - of assaulting women, including the mother of two of his children.
By some accounts, there were 13 people in the 37-foot-long limo that night, including Lewis' hometown friend Kwame King, 26, now a student at Florida A&M; University, and Jessica Robertson of Houston, who reportedly met Lewis during Super Bowl week.
Robertson, who agreed to an immunity deal, turned over Lewis' clothes, which she had kept since the morning of the killings.
On the other side are friends of the victims from their hometown, Akron, Ohio, who had come to Atlanta for Super Bowl revelry. Some of them might make problematic witnesses because of their criminal backgrounds or their behavior during the brawl.
One of them, Jeffrey Gwen, a fledgling rap artist who calls himself Chino Nino, was on probation for a drug conviction when he went to Atlanta. His compact disc "Get Wet" contains explicit references to violence and drugs.
Marlin Burros, 33, a music producer from the Atlanta area who was part-owner of a hair salon where Lollar, one of the victims, worked, admitted firing shots at Lewis' limousine as it sped from the scene of the killings, saying he panicked when he saw his friends die in the street.
Lt. Mike Smith, the police officer who arrested Lewis, is under investigation by his department for allegedly asking questions of a racial nature that angered two potential witnesses.
The FUBU model
People who weren't in Atlanta the night of the killings have been dragged into the case, in some instances because prosecutors want to prove that Lewis had friendships with Oakley and Sweeting. Lewis originally told police that he barely knew them.
Garfield Yuille, a national model for the clothing line FUBU, might be asked to testify about the possible friendships.
Duane Fassett of Severn, the limousine driver, told police that he drove Oakley, Yuille and Sweeting from Lewis' mansion to Ravens home games.
The raunchy video
The video, created by Luther Campbell, formerly of 2 Live Crew, is set at the Coco Bongo nightclub in Cancun, Mexico. In it, Lewis enters the club with Sweeting amid blaring rap music and dances shirtless amid women who subsequently engage in sex.
The tape could be used by prosecutors to try to establish a relationship between Lewis and Sweeting and counter defense efforts to show Lewis in a favorable light.
A famous limousine
The limousine, stained with blood and pockmarked with bullet holes four months ago, also has been summoned to Atlanta for jurors to see.
The Lincoln Navigator - with 14 seats, multiple televisions and a Nintendo set, it rents for $1,500 for eight hours - has become All Stretched Out Limousine Service's most popular vehicle, in demand for weddings and proms.
Confusion for jury
The complexity of the case, some legal experts say, is the prosecution's problem."I think what you're going to see is a lot of people telling a lot of different stories," Froelich said, "different people in different locations doing different things at different times, none of which put a knife in Lewis' hands.
"There will be so many stories, the jury will be confused."
Sun staff writer Jon Morgan contributed to this article.
Tomorrow: A look at the likely evidence and the likely strategies of the defense and prosecution - and what each side must do to win.