ATLANTA - Last February, a freshly indicted Jamal Lewis had a message for the public.
"It's extremely important to me that my family, my friends, my fans and the Ravens' organization know that I am innocent" of an alleged drug conspiracy, the Ravens running back said.
But eight months later Lewis reversed his field, admitting in a plea bargain agreement that he had made an introduction for a hometown friend in 2000 so the friend could buy cocaine.
Left unanswered is why Lewis, who is to be sentenced here today to an expected four-month prison term, chose to plead guilty to one of the counts in a seven-count federal indictment. Had his original denial been an act, or did he simply consider it too risky to submit to a jury trial that could have resulted in a far harsher penalty and the end of his football career?
Lewis' about-face is one of several unexplained contradictions in the NFL star's case. Among them:
As part of his plea, Lewis, 25, maintained "that at no time during these events did [I] possess cocaine, intend to possess cocaine, provide any money for the purchase of cocaine or expect to receive any money from the sale of cocaine." But the attorney for Angelo Jackson, also charged in the case, maintains that Lewis was to share in $4,000 in proceeds from a deal in which cocaine was to be purchased and resold.
Lewis and Jackson, both native Atlantans, had once been friends and seemed to be allies after they were indicted. Yet in his plea agreement, Lewis agreed to testify at trial, if needed, against Jackson.
Lewis' attorney, Don Samuel, suggests his client's decision to accept a plea bargain was the equivalent of a football team playing conservatively so as not to sustain a big loss. At least with a plea bargain, there would be no mystery about the outcome.
While attorneys in the case believe Chief U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans was likely to accept the agreed-upon four-month sentence, she could order a different term if she sees fit.
Samuel said there was no shame in Lewis initially denying guilt and then shifting course. "Everyone who is indicted pleads not guilty," he said.
Lewis isn't expected to enter prison right away. He is likely to walk away from the federal courthouse - or hobble, since he is recuperating from ankle surgery - and to remain free for at least several more weeks.
The government's case against Lewis and Jackson was to center on an undercover informant who secretly recorded her conversations with them in 2000. According to an FBI affidavit, the woman first contacted Lewis by cell phone and they discussed arranging cocaine purchases for Jackson. The three met later at an Atlanta restaurant, where they discussed a price, the affidavit says.
At the time, Lewis was about to sign his first contract with the Ravens.
The investigation was part of a larger probe of drug trafficking in the Bowen Homes area of Atlanta that has led to the conviction of more than 30 people.
Had the case gone to trial, Lewis' attorneys were prepared to argue that the informant was unreliable. "The witness upon whose credibility the entire case rises or falls has a prodigious number of aliases," the defense said in a motion last year. "She has at least three recorded dates of birth."
With the informant expected to be a key witness at a planned November trial, the government alleged the conspiracy involved at least 5 kilograms of a drug substance containing cocaine. That would have been enough to trigger a minimum, mandatory prison term of 10 years if Lewis were convicted by a jury.
"In the end, I think the decision was that the risk of a 10-year mandatory sentence was too huge," Samuel said yesterday.
But Steve Sadow, Jackson's attorney, has sought to cast doubt on Lewis' version of events. Sadow has said Jackson "would be more than willing to take a polygraph on whether Jamal Lewis was supposed to receive some of the [drug] money."
Like Lewis, Jackson avoided trial by striking a deal. He pleaded guilty in October to attempting to possess with the intent to distribute 1 kilogram of cocaine. He is to receive a five-year prison term under the plea, assuming Evans formally accepts the plea today.
Lewis pleaded guilty that same month to using a telephone to facilitate a drug-trafficking crime. He agreed to a term of four months' prison time, two months in a halfway house and 500 hours of community service.
It will be up to the Bureau or Prisons to determine where Lewis serves his time. His attorneys have considered asking that Lewis be sent to a prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. That way, Lewis would be reasonably close to his Atlanta relatives.
There is no guarantee the judge would make such a recommendation if asked.
Friends and family say Lewis wants to tell his story someday but needs to first let his case run its course. John Lewis, the running back's older brother, said last week he is considering writing a book that would include "things that he might not want to say yet, but that I can say."