ATLANTA - He's not been charged or even identified, but a mysterious man dressed in black emerged yesterday as a central figure in the murder trial of Ravens star Ray Lewis.
The man, alternately described as dressed all in leather or in mink, was described by witnesses as brandishing a knife minutes before two men were stabbed to death in an early morning melee on Jan. 31. Participants in the brawl testified yesterday that the man is not Lewis or either of the two men on trial with him.
"We're still dealing with that," assistant district attorney Clint Rucker said after court yesterday when asked who he thinks the man in black is. "I don't want to discuss it at this time."
So far, no one has testified to seeing Ray Lewis stab or hit anyone, or to seeing him carrying a knife, although prosecutors have more witnesses to come. Lewis can't be convicted of murder unless prosecutors prove that he played a significant role in the events leading up to the deaths of Richard Lollar, 24 and Jacinth Baker, 21.
Lewis faces assault and murder charges in the men's death, along with Reginald Oakley, of Baltimore and Joseph Sweeting, of Miami, all of whom have pleaded not guilty.
One witness testified yesterday that he saw Oakley carrying a knife, and two witnesses said he hit Baker. No one has yet put a knife in the hands of Sweeting, the third defendant, though witnesses did testify that he bought a knife that resembled the murder weapon two days before the killings. Also, a dispute broke out late yesterday over one witeness' testimony.
The bulk of yesterday's court action focused on testimony by two Akron, Ohio, men who had come to town for the Super Bowl. Both men, friends of the victims, said they had been smoking marijuana and drinking champagne at upscale nightclubs. They said they got into a violent street fight with the Lewis party that began when Oakley and Baker exchanged vulgar words on a sidewalk as the bars were closing.
Oakley, a friend of Lewis', emerged from a stretch limousine that Lewis had rented and headed toward Baker, said Jeff Gwen, 26. Baker, a slightly built part-time student, responded by breaking a champagne bottle over Oakley's head, Gwen said.
"People started jumping out of the limo," Gwen said.
Chaos ensued, during which Gwen said he exchanged blows with a man from Lewis' party, and was threatened by another man with a knife.
"I'm fighting with him and I look to my left and I see Ray Lewis and Richard [Lollar] holding each other and tussling," Gwen said.
Looking down the street, Gwen said, he saw Oakley holding Baker by the hood of his coat, punching him in the stomach. Prosecutors allege that Oakley was holding a knife as he beat Baker, concealing it from witnesses but inflicting fatal injuries to the heart.
Another member of the Akron group, Christopher Shinholster, 27, said he asked Lewis early in the fight to restrain Oakley but Lewis "just stood there."
Shinholster then heard Lollar yell "get your hands off my cousin," and turned to see Baker sagging to the ground and Oakley pulling up on him.
Shinholster rushed to Baker's side just as Lollar walked up.
"Richard walked towards me and said 'One of them [black men] cut me.' He was in a cool and calm tone. The next thing I know, he just fainted and then there was blood everywhere," Shinholster said.
Gwen said he tried to revive Lollar by touching his cheek.
"He lets out a breath and his eyes roll back into his head," Gwen said.
Gwen and Shinholster said they fled the scene after the killings, leaving their injured friends behind. Gwen said he was on probation and was not supposed to be in the state. Shinholster said he was scared and ran.
Defense attorneys sought to discredit the witnesses by presenting evidence of their own criminal records. But the defense gained advantage when both men put a knife in the hands of the mystery man in black, who isn't one of the three defendants.
The Akron men said the man in black appeared from Lewis' party early in the incident, before any fighting had begun but after angry words had been traded by Oakley and the Akron group.
The mystery man was described by Shinholster as a black man with dark skin, about 6 feet 1, with a thin beard and mustache, wearing a black mink coat and matching shirt and carrying a knife.
Gwen remembered him as wearing black leather pants and jacket and a derby hat.
Defense attorneys have sought in opening statements and pretrial motions to implicate others in the killings. At least four other men were known to be in the Lewis group that morning, two of whom have been called as witnesses and are expected to refuse to answer questions on the grounds that it might incriminate them. Two others have never been identified.
Court adjourned yesterday on a rancorous note. Defense attorneys accused the prosecution of withholding evidence, and asked the judge to throw out Gwen's testimony.
Gwen had originally told prosecutors that he saw Lewis punch someone, but later recanted and said Lewis had instead "tussled" with the man. Defense lawyers said that prosecutors never told them that Gwen had changed his statement, as required under a law that says prosecutors must turn over any evidence favorable to the defense.
Bonner refused, but ordered the attorneys to meet in her office in the morning.
"I am extremely concerned about that," she said.
Prosecutors said they weren't trying to hide anything; they simply corrected the statement and planned to use Gwen's correct testimony - that Lewis did not hit anyone - in court. Assistant district attorney Clint Rucker said the defense knew all along what Gwen would say on the stand, because investigators working for the defense interviewed him before he made his statement to prosecutors.
"It is a classical false issue," district attorney Paul Howard said after court adjorned.
Lewis attorney Don Samuel said the lawyers weren't sure which account Gwen would present from the witness stand, something that affected their strategy in preparing opening statements.