ATLANTA - Ravens star Ray Lewis took the stand for the first time yesterday, describing a moment when "all hell broke loose" and demonstrating on a manikin some of the blows struck in the course of a vicious street fight that left two men dead.
Lewis testified for the prosecution, describing how three of the companions with him early Jan. 31 took part in the brawl and that one of them afterward demonstrated to him how he had held a knife.
The testimony, coming a day after Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction in exchange for having felony charges against him dropped, revived Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard's faltering case against the two other men.
But even if it prevents the judge from throwing out the case, it might not win a conviction. Lewis also provided evidence for self-defense claims for Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore, and Joseph Sweeting, 24, of Miami. Both men are charged with assault and murder in the stabbing deaths of two Decatur, Ga., men.
Lewis said Oakley and Sweeting had been attacked by members of the victims' group early Jan. 31 and that he never saw them stabbing anyone.
Under questioning from Howard, who until this week had been trying to lock up Lewis for the rest of his life, the player described the sequence of events that left Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, dead.
Two days before the fight, Lewis said he was riding in his rented stretch limousine with Sweeting and Oakley when the two showed them folding knives they had just purchased. Prosecutors allege these were the murder weapons.
"They said, 'Hey man, look at these knives we bought,'" Lewis said. "I said, 'Hey man, you all are tripping with the knives.'"
Lewis' entourage picked up members as it made its way through a weekend of parties, including one hosted by NBA legend Magic Johnson.
On Super Bowl Sunday, the group ended up at a nightclub. After several hours and three or four servings of Remy Martin cognac, Lewis led the group out of the bar and down the street toward his waiting limousine. On the way he heard some of those lagging behind him encounter five or six strangers, he said. Lewis turned and saw Oakley talking angrily and gesturing at them.
"He was the aggressor at that point. He was really hostile at these guys," Lewis said. Lewis said he grabbed Oakley by the waist and pulled him up the street, back to the limousine. "I was asking, 'What are you doing? We don't have time to argue. Let it go,'" the 240-pound linebacker testified.
Lewis said he got his group into the limousine and was standing outside with Sweeting when the other group - men with roots in Akron, Ohio - passed by on the sidewalk. Then they turned and began heading back to the limousine, he said.
'Everybody was just fighting'
Then, for reasons Lewis said he doesn't know, Oakley hopped out and headed toward the Akron group. One man, later identified as Baker, hit Oakley on the side of the head with a full bottle of Moet champagne, opening a cut behind Oakley's ear but not breaking the bottle.
"All hell broke loose at that point," Lewis said. "Everybody was just fighting."
Sweeting , a slightly built man known to friends as "Shorty," went to Oakley's aid but was grabbed by two larger men. One of them dragged Sweeting a few feet by his shirt, pulling it from the back of his neck - a maneuver Sweeting's attorney had Lewis demonstrate on Sweeting in one of several bits of courtroom theatrics yesterday.
Lewis said he looked over and saw Oakley and Baker in the street. "That was a frantic fight. They was really going at it," he testified.
On a cloth manikin provided by prosecutors, Lewis demonstrated how he saw Oakley at one point standing behind Baker, punching down at him, landing blows to his chest as the man slumped to the ground.
Prosecutors allege that Oakley held a knife between his fingers while punching Baker, masking from observers what he was doing.
In a key point expected to help defense attorneys, Lewis testified that another member of his group, Carlos Stafford of Texas, joined in the fight against Baker, kicking him. Lewis said he later overheard Stafford say he picked up the unbroken bottle and smashed Baker with it.
Prosecutors have said they are considering charging another man - believed to be Stafford - based upon Lewis' testimony. Stafford's attorney has said his client committed no crimes.
Meanwhile, Sweeting was being hit by two men, Lewis said. "He was fighting back, he was throwing punches in the chest area," he testified.
'Let's go, let's go
"All of this took less than a minute. It was like there was a big brawl. I was yelling the whole time, 'Let's go, let's go,' and nobody was leaving so I ran back to my limo and said, 'I'm out of here,'" he said.
Lewis said the others soon joined him. As the vehicle left the curb, it was struck by several bullets. A member of the Akron group has admitted to shooting at the limousine, in an effort to get it to stop. The occupants hit the floor and stayed there until they pulled into a hotel a mile away to fix a tire flattened by the gunfire.
While in that hotel's lobby, waiting for cabs, Lewis said he walked up to Sweeting and asked what happened. He said his friend, whom he has known since he attended the University of Miami, showed him how he held a knife between his fingers in a fist. Lewis demonstrated the back and forth motion for the jurors, using a pen for the knife.
"He said, 'Every time they hit me I hit them.' I said, 'You all tripping'" Lewis testified.
Later, in his hotel room, Lewis asked Oakley what had happened. Oakley said he "was just beating him," Lewis testified. "I said this is all on me. My career is over because you guys tripping."
Lewis admitted lying to police when they came to interview him later that day. He said he doesn't know what became of the cream-colored suit he had on that night. He left his clothes with a friend because he had to go to Hawaii to play in the Pro Bowl. Prosecutors contend the clothes and other evidence was dumped in a fast-food restaurant's trash container.
Though several witnesses had testified that Lewis was involved in the fight, the player said yesterday: "It's something I don't do. I don't fight, period."
On his way out of the courthouse, Lewis reiterated that he did not kill or even hit anyone during the melee, which came as the city was celebrating the Super Bowl played here the night before.
"I was never anything in this case but a witness," Lewis said. "Thank you to all my fans who supported me."
Lewis was free to return to Baltimore, where he is expected to hold a news conference Friday. His attorney said the player may eventually seek a meeting with family members of the victims.
Move surprises jurors
Lewis' move from the defendant's table to the witness stand took jurors by surprise. One could be seen asking her seatmate where he was when the trial resumed yesterday morning. The judge explained the situation and told them not to hold the development against the remaining defendants.
Lewis' high-powered attorneys, who had commanded the center of the courtroom for three weeks, were relegated to the spectators' seats. Chief attorney Edward T. M. Garland sat with his wife.
The player's last-minute plea agreement with prosecutors and his testimony headed off what might have been a humiliating "directed verdict," by the judge to throw out the case, said Jerome Froelich, a prominent Atlanta defense attorney not connected with the case.
That puts Oakley and Sweeting in a worse situation then they had been when Lewis sat alongside them at the defense table, he said.
"They are much worse off. It is going to a jury now. Anytime your fate is in the hands of 12 people you are much worse off," Froelich said.
The case might turn on the directions the judge will give jurors and how they will interpret Georgia laws governing self-defense and deadly force, he said. And prosecutors still have a hard job before them to convince jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that the men are murderers, he said.
"They've got a good self-defense case," Froelich said.
Another Atlanta defense attorney, Mark Spix, said Lewis' testimony helped the prosecution, not because it was so damaging to Oakley and Sweeting, but because the state's case was in so much trouble.
"You're talking about a dike with thousands of holes and Ray Lewis plugged up 800 of them," Spix said. But Lewis also helped the defense by giving Sweeting and Oakley a plausible reason for being in a fight, and describing Sweeting being attacked by two men, he said.
No attack on credibility
While some legal analysts predicted that defense attorneys would attack Lewis' credibility, they didn't. Harvey even opened on a folksy note, asking the player permission to call him Ray because he was used to having him seated next to him.
Spix said the lawyers were smart not to attack Lewis, largely because his statement wasn't all that damaging to their clients.
"If I were a prosecutor I'd think he'd helped the defense a little too much," he said.
Howard said Lewis' testimony makes a self-defense theory implausible: "If what they were doing was self-defense, why would Lewis say he got disgusted by their actions and tell them to remain quiet about it?"
Attorneys for Oakley and Sweeting said Lewis didn't hurt their clients and helped portray the victims as aggressors.
"There is nothing that Ray Lewis testified to that is inconsistent with the innocence of Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting," said Bruce Harvey, Oakley's lawyer.
Lewis wasn't seeking to hurt his former co-defendants, Garland said. But "I don't think you will see him in their presence again."