Trial takes final twists in Atlanta

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ATLANTA - The case formerly known as the Ray Lewis murder trial continued its path of sudden twists yesterday, when the judge threw out half the charges against each of the two remaining defendants.

Soon after that, a witness told jurors that when he happened upon the deadly fight, he heard a man confess to stabbing a victim who lay slumped before them - and that man has not been charged.

After 12 days of testimony from three dozen witnesses, both the prosecution and defense teams rested their cases yesterday and began to prepare for closing arguments this morning.

The surprising developments yesterday delivered a double blow to prosecutors still struggling to recover from two weeks of flip-flopping witnesses and the exit of Ravens linebacker Lewis from the trial after six felony charges against him were dropped Monday.

Defendants Reginald Oakley, of Baltimore, and Joseph Sweeting, of Miami, are still charged with murder, felony murder and aggravated assault in connection with the deaths of Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, of Decatur, Ga. But while each defendant was previously charged with beating and killing both victims, each is now charged with beating and killing just one. The change could reduce their sentences if they are convicted.

"The prosecution went into this case with 18 charges and three defendants," said Bob Wilson, a former district attorney in neighboring Dekalb County. "Two-thirds of the original charges are gone, and one-third of their defendants are gone. I think there are serious questions about how well this case was investigated."

The dismissal of charges was a particular hit to the prosecution, because had the judge not taken that action, the defense's star witness - in fact its only witness - could have helped the state's case yesterday.

Keven Brown, a bodyguard who stumbled on the fight after leaving the Cobalt Lounge, told jurors he tried to stop a man wearing a black, three-quarter-length fur coat from beating a slightly built man who had stopped fighting back. The victim was turned out to be Baker. "He was stroking him pretty nice," Brown testified. And once Brown pushed the man in fur off the victim, the man said, "I stabbed him," Brown told the jury.

Brown said he was "90 percent sure" that the man in black fur was Carlos Stafford, another passenger in Lewis' rented limousine. Stafford has not been charged, though prosecutors are considering a case against him. Stafford's attorney, who has said his client was not involved in the fight, did not return calls yesterday.

For jurors, Brown's testimony raises doubts about whether Oakley or someone else stabbed Baker.

In court yesterday, District Attorney Paul Howard raised the possibility the man who stabbed Baker could have been Sweeting. During cross examination, Brown said he was certain that the man in the fur had braids. Howard's contention is that the man was defendant Sweeting wearing someone else's mink coat. Several witnesses who were riding in the limo testified that Sweeting was the only one in the group with braids.

All along, the state had held that Sweeting killed Lollar and Oakley was the one who killed Baker.

Yesterday, Judge Alice D. Bonner blocked prosecutors from holding Sweeting responsible for Baker's death by issuing the "directed verdicts," which essentially hold there's not enough evidence that Sweeting and Oakley were parties to each other's crimes, as the prosecution had contended.

Brown's testimony came after the judge issued the directed verdicts, and Howard asked her to reverse them in light of that new evidence, but she refused.

After court, Howard said Brown's testimony helped his case by describing men who fit the descriptions of Oakley and Sweeting beating the victims.

"I thought that captured the essence of what happened, two young guys running for their lives," Howard said.

Howard said he didn't call Brown as a witness because he couldn't be trusted. As an eyewitness, Brown had given police a statement just after the deadly fight, but had not told police that he was acquainted with a woman who had been riding in the limo, Howard said. (Brown testified yesterday that he didn't know the woman was in the limo until later.)

Instead, Howard said, the bodyguard who counts as his clients sports and entertainment figures got in contact with the boyfriend of limo passenger Rehana Grant two days after the crime, and subsequently became a "Lewis witness." To bolster that idea, Howard called Grant's boyfriend, Brian Johnson, as a rebuttal witness yesterday.

The district attorney also said after court that Brown made statements that were contradicted by other witnesses - one of which was that Lewis was very drunk that night. Lewis' attorneys had contended the state didn't call Brown as a witness because he would hurt its case.

Earlier in the day, defense attorneys cross examined a DNA analyst who evaluated blood samples from the limo and two hotels, focusing on six samples of unknown blood collected from the limo and Lewis' hotel room.

Attorneys repeatedly stressed in their questioning that the state had not taken blood samples from several other men riding in the limo and four of the victims' friends who were at the scene, so they couldn't be sure those men weren't involved in the killings.

After the prosecution rested, Bruce Harvey, Oakley's flamboyant lawyer, who wears a long braid and tattoos and has done a legal tap dance throughout the trial, gave his opening arguments, which he had postponed from the beginning of the trial, when all the other lawyers gave theirs.

Lawyers aren't allowed to go over already-presented evidence in opening statements - that's for closing arguments. But Harvey launched right in, telling the jury they had seen as many versions of the story as there were witnesses - "a virtual smorgasbord as it were." The judge scolded him for using the opportunity to argue his case.

The judge rejected a request by Harvey to tell the jury it could consider for his client a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter - a felony that carries a penalty of one to 10 years - instead of murder.

Among the issues jurors will be asked to consider, perhaps starting today, is whether Sweeting and Oakley acted in self-defense and therefore would not be guilty even if they killed the victims, because they believed their own lives were at stake. Defense attorneys are expected to argue that the victims were part of a gang from Ohio who were aggressors in the fight.

Commenting on the directed verdicts, Dan Summer, a criminal defense attorney from Gainesville, Ga., said jurors are bound to wonder about the rest of the district attorney's case when so much of it has been eliminated. "It's not a knock-out blow to the prosecution, but it is a crippling blow."

Sun Staff writer Jon Morgan contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
64°