Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard dropped murder and aggravated assault charges against Lewis, two weeks into his trial. In exchange, Lewis promised to take the stand and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction charge for which he will serve a one-year probation.
The NFL said yesterday that the misdemeanor conviction will not prevent the All-Pro middle linebacker from playing for the Ravens this fall, and the team said it would welcome him back.
"The truth has set Ray Lewis free. He was an innocent man put through a horrible ordeal. He looks forward to going back to Baltimore and returning to playing football," said Lewis' chief attorney, Edward T. M. Garland of Atlanta.
Within hours of the Lewis plea bargain, the NFL said he would not face a suspension for his misdemeanor offense, but he still could be fined under the league's new personal conduct policy.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said it might take several weeks to determine the possible fine, pending a review of the plea and of the court records.
Ravens owner Art Modell does not expect further sanctions.
"I don't think they will do anything more," Modell said. "If every player who is charged with a misdemeanor in the NFL is suspended, we'd be playing with four-man rosters."
In the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner yesterday, Lewis was flanked by three attorneys as he stood to enter his plea. Jurors were not in the room and will be notified of the change in the defendant lineup when they return.
Lewis answered a series of questions with one-word replies, completing the formality of admitting that he had obstructed the police investigation.
Lewis had been charged, along with Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley, in the stabbing deaths of two men in a street brawl early on Jan. 31, as the city celebrated the Super Bowl played here the night before. The three men were being tried jointly.
"Ray Lewis acted to prevent a fight, Ray Lewis acted to stop a fight. He sympathizes with the families of the deceased and wishes these events had never happened," Garland said, adding that the situation had "swirled out of his control."
By giving up on convicting Lewis, Howard, who faces re- election this fall, acknowledged how poorly his case had been going against the celebrity defendant. But he also greatly shored up the case against the remaining defendants, meaning he might still win convictions for a politically explosive double slaying in Atlanta's tourist-rich Buckhead nightclub district.
Howard had been widely criticized for moving so rapidly to charge and indict Lewis - who was arrested on the same day as the killings. But the prosecutor justified his decisions yesterday.
"If he had not been indicted, we would not have come to this point," he said.
Howard also said he is eyeing another suspect.
"We are definitely looking very closely at one person who will be charged. I don't want to give the name and give them a chance to get away."
Lewis submitted to about an hour of questioning by prosecutors Sunday afternoon. A videotape was provided yesterday to lawyers for Oakley, 31, of Baltimore, and Sweeting, 34, of Miami.
Prosecutors alleged that all three men got into a vulgar, verbal altercation possibly initiated by Jacinth Baker, 21, about 4 a.m. as the Buckhead bars were closing. In the ensuing fight, Baker and Richard Lollar, 24, were chased, beaten and stabbed.
Lewis and 10 members of his party then piled into his rented, 37-foot limousine and fled, according to witness testimony.
Sources familiar with Lewis' videotaped statement say it could provide jurors with enough evidence to convict his former co- defendants of murder.
Lewis says that he did not see anyone handling a knife during the fight but did see the two involved in the deadly brawl, along with limo passenger Carlos Stafford, sources said.
Stafford's attorney, Dwight Thomas, did not respond to requests for comment but in the past has said his client didn't commit any crimes.
Stafford, who lives in Texas, partied that day with Lewis and his group. He had unsuccessfully sought immunity in return for his testimony.
Lewis, who is questioned by Howard, says he saw Sweeting with a knife in the limo after the killings. Previous witnesses have testified that Sweeting purchased three knives days before the killings, but no witness has been able to identify him as an aggressor in the fight.
Lewis says he saw Oakley punching Baker with the kind of uppercut motions that Howard demonstrated to the jury had caused the deadly wounds.
Last night, Lewis and his legal team were meeting with prosecutors to prepare the testimony he is expected to give today.
Attorneys for Sweeting and Oakley were stunned by the turnabout. Until Friday, the three defense teams had maintained a united front against prosecutors.
"This means that Ray Lewis will play and the others will pay," said Bruce Harvey, a court-appointed attorney representing Oakley.
After seeing the Lewis videotape, Oakley's other lawyer, David Wolfe, said it was "worrisome" but expressed hope that his client would be cleared. Witnesses have testified that Oakley was hit on the head with a champagne bottle by Baker, establishing the basis for a self-defense claim.
Under Georgia's "stand your ground" statutes, someone confronted by an attacker armed with a deadly weapon is permitted to kill in defense of himself or others. A broken bottle could qualify as a deadly weapon, attorneys say.
Sweeting's lawyer, Steve Sadow - who learned of the deal Sunday night when contacted for comment by The Sun - said all three men were on track for acquittal and that Lewis' plea agreement was unnecessary. He expressed bitterness at not receiving a courtesy call from Lewis' defense team.
Harvey said "what goes around comes around" and promised a vigorous cross-examination of Lewis when he takes the witness stand, perhaps as early as today.
Whether Lewis' testimony spells conviction or acquittal for Oakley and Sweeting is for jurors to decide, Garland said.
"Ray is not going to make a judgment about what he saw. Ray saw no knife being used," he said.
Lewis will testify truthfully to what he saw, regardless of his relationship with the people involved, Garland said. He has learned important lessons about whom he associates with and how his celebrity attracts people who might not have his best interest at heart, he said.
"Anyone who did this is no friend of Ray Lewis. They put his whole life and his career in jeopardy," Garland said.
He said his obligation was "solely" to his client and that he decided to take the deal from prosecutors rather than taking his chances with jurors to avoid any "lingering doubts" about Lewis' innocence.
Garland said he was confident the judge would have thrown out the charges - a process known as issuing a "directed verdict" - if an agreement hadn't been struck.
"If we had just won the case with a directed verdict, the media and the public would always say 'his lawyers got him off' or 'the district attorney dropped the ball,'" Garland said.
Howard met with his staff Sunday morning to review the case, which was entering its final days. The office had been in contact with a number of late-emerging witnesses, but each was demanding immunity.
Howard decided to approach Lewis about a deal and reached Garland on his car phone as the lawyer was driving to his office to prepare his closing statement to jurors, sources said.
Howard went to Garland's office to finalize the terms about 3 p.m. An hour later, Lewis was at the district attorney's office undergoing questioning.
"I think Paul Howard saw and studied the evidence. To his credit, he stood up and did the right thing," Garland said.
Howard, whose case seemed to go downhill from the start, declined to say whether he no longer felt Lewis was a killer.
He blamed witnesses who took the stand and said less than they told police investigators. At least one witness has complained he felt pressured by investigators hired by Lewis during an interview prior to his court appearance.
"I can say we certainly have been severely dissatisfied with some of the people who have testified. What they said [on the witness stand] certainly was a lot different than what they said before," Howard said.
Howard notified victims' family members just before the case resumed yesterday, calling them to a small room off of the courtroom to explain his decision. There was frustration from some of the loved ones, he said.
"In time they will come to understand," Howard said.
Charita Hale, a cousin of Lollar, said she disagreed with Howard's decision. "It's crazy. They was all involved in it," she said.
She's not convinced Lewis' testimony will help convict the others.
"Who's to say if he will tell the truth?" she said.
Although Lewis' evasive statement to police the day of the killings received the most attention, it was his instructions to fellow limo passengers to keep quiet that resulted in his obstruction of justice charge.
Obstruction carries a maximum sentence of 12 months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Instead, Lewis received probation and had to agree to testify in this trial and any others that might result.
He also will pay for one-third of the cost of the investigation and trial. Howard estimated the state's bill to Lewis would be about $60,000, an amount that could bring his total legal costs into the $1 million range, according to sources close to the case.
The player will pay $50 a month for his probation servicing. He is also expected to be required to check in monthly with a probation agent in Atlanta, to stay off of drugs and alcohol and remain employed - all standard probation terms.
Once released from his responsibilities in Atlanta, Lewis is free to rejoin the team. The Ravens said they expect him to participate in next week's veterans mini-camp at their Owings Mills practice facility.
Sun staff writer Ken Murray contributed to this article.