ATLANTA - As the legal team for Jamal Lewis began the high-stakes task of defending him against drug charges that threaten his freedom and his multimillion-dollar career, the chief trial attorney for the Ravens star said yesterday that the case is based on old information that can easily be countered in court.
"I feel very comfortable with the case," said Atlanta lawyer Jerome J. Froelich, Lewis' lead trial strategist. "I think it's going to be a very short, to-the-point trial."
Lewis remained out of the public view yesterday, one day after the 24-year-old running back pleaded not guilty in federal court here to charges that he helped arrange a cocaine deal in the summer of 2000 between a hometown friend and a woman who turned out to be an informant for the FBI.
That sting operation ended with the arrest in July 2000 of Lewis' friend, Angelo M. "Pero" Jackson. At that time, federal prosecutors detailed in court records the current allegations against Lewis - but he was not charged with any crime, and the case against Jackson was dismissed without explanation at the request of the government about eight months later.
Froehlich said he has reviewed discovery evidence recently provided to him by prosecutors. He said they have no more information linking Lewis to drug dealing than they did in the summer of 2000, when Lewis began his NFL career. Jackson's attorney, R. David Botts, also has said he does not know why the government revived the case.
The U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta has declined to comment. In announcing the indictment of Lewis, prosecutors said only that the charges stemmed from a long-running investigation of narcotics activity at the Bowen Homes housing complex, a probe that has resulted in more than 30 convictions.
But Froehlich said there is no link between Lewis and the activities of the violent cocaine ring that operated from the crime-ridden Atlanta housing project. None of the dozens of figures from those cases would figure in Lewis' trial, Froehlich said. "There's going to be no connection," he said.
One of the men convicted in connection with the Bowen Homes operation, however, is mentioned during a taped conversation between Lewis and the FBI informant, according to an affidavit made public this week.
When the FBI informant first contacted Lewis by cell phone June 23, 2000, to discuss possible cocaine sales, she told Lewis that Keaton Johnson was "timely," meaning that Johnson - who also was known on the street by the nickname "White Boy Keith" - was not dependable, according to the affidavit.
"Lewis responded, 'Yeah, I don't know, you know what I'm saying, I don't know,'" the affidavit said. "Lewis continued to say that he had another narcotic associate that he wanted the [informant] to meet."
Johnson's name does not appear again in the affidavit. He was charged in the Bowen Homes case in January 2002, along with 22 co-defendants, and later pleaded guilty to federal drug charges. At a trial later that year, Johnson testified that he typically sold about 300 kilograms of cocaine a month, serving as a supplier to many of the ring's lower-level retail sellers, according to trial transcripts.
Defense attorneys in that case tried unsuccessfully to clear their clients by attacking the credibility of confidential sources and informants. Lewis' attorneys are likely to take the same approach as they form their defense.
"This entire case is built on the testimony of people who don't care a thing about lying," said attorney Donald F. Samuel, who is part of Lewis' defense team but at the time was representing a suspected drug dealer named Dexter Hubbard who ended up with a federal prison term of more than 24 years.
"These people would rather climb a tree and tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell you the truth," transcripts quote Samuel as saying during closing arguments in that case.
No hearing or trial dates have been scheduled for Lewis, who is scheduled to report to the Ravens' first minicamp May 7.
Veteran defense attorneys and former prosecutors said the timing issue is just the beginning of the complex juggling act that comes with representing a high-profile client, particularly in a federal court case in which the possible punishment typically is more severe than in state court.
Lewis could face a prison term of between 10 years and life if convicted as charged.
Lewis' lead attorney, Edward T.M. Garland, said at a news conference Thursday that he hoped the case could go to trial as soon as June, although team officials in Maryland had speculated that the trial could be delayed until next year - after the 2004 NFL season.
"Realistically, Ed Garland can make things go as fast or as slow as he wants," said Baltimore lawyer Andrew C. White, a former federal prosecutor. "If I'm Jamal Lewis, I want things over as soon as possible."
One challenge for the defense team is balancing Lewis' career concerns with his legal ones. Paul Mark Sandler, a partner with prominent Baltimore sports agent Ron Shapiro, said an athlete's career "is like any other person's career, [but] it becomes difficult because of the athlete's fame."
"You're part of the atmosphere, with the world looking at your life," he said.
A client's high profile also can raise the stakes for informants and cooperators looking for a break, lawyers said.
"You are talking about a famous person, and you have to be suspicious of what the people testifying against him are going to receive in exchange," Baltimore defense attorney A. Dwight Pettit said. "Who's getting what? What is the government offering them?"
Sun staff writers Gail Gibson and Reginald Fields contributed to this article.