MAYS LANDING, N.J. — —Ravens running back Ray Rice rejected a plea offer Thursday that would spare him jail time on charges that he assaulted his then-fiancee, and instead asked the court to put him in a program under which he could eventually clear his record.
With his status in the NFL still undetermined, Rice made his first court appearance since being charged by an Atlantic County grand jury with one count of third-degree aggravated assault. He is accused of knocking Janay Palmer unconscious during an altercation in the Revel Casino in February, an incident that authorities say was caught on video by a security camera.
Palmer, who married Rice days after the indictment, accompanied him into the courthouse near Atlantic City on Thursday and sat behind him in the first row during the hearing as the three-time All-Pro entered a plea of not guilty. The plea keeps his options open as the case moves forward.
"First and foremost, he's very remorseful for the actions that happened that night. He loves Janay, and he wants to move forward," Rice's attorney Michael Diamondstein told reporters outside the courthouse. "He thinks it's best for not only himself, but his family, his job."
Rice, 27, is not only fighting a legal case but also a public relations battle as he faces possible NFL sanctions. The league is monitoring the legal developments in Rice's case and weighing a suspension and a possible fine.
Joseph A. Levin, an Atlantic City criminal defense attorney not involved in Rice's case, said seeking to get into the pretrial program, generally reserved for first-time offenders, is the best option for Rice.
Six months after completion of the program, Rice could apply to get the charge expunged from his record. And Thursday would mark the football player's last court appearance in the case, as long as he completes the program's requirements, including probation and rehabilitative programs.
"He would not have to admit guilt or culpability in any way," Levin said. And if Rice completes the program, "the case will fade away," he said.
Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and coach John Harbaugh have both said in the past that Rice would remain with the team. Ravens director of public relations Chad Steele said Wednesday of the court proceedings, "This is part of Ray's process and we will comment at the appropriate time."
Earlier this week, during a predraft news conference at the Ravens' training complex, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said, "We'll deal with Ray when that time comes."
Michael McCann, director of the University of New Hampshire Sports and Entertainment Law Institute and a legal analyst for Sports Illustrated and NBA TV, said the possible agreement appears to be a favorable legal deal for Rice, but its outcome won't necessarily translate to the NFL, which has punished players without criminal charges or convictions.
"The NFL has a different system of justice," McCann said. "The NFL's system of justice has to do with damage to the league's image."
As Rice's criminal case winds down, McCann said, the NFL will start its own review, which likely will include going over much of the same evidence prosecutors considered.
Prosecutors said they had offered Rice a plea deal that would place him on probation and require him to attend anger management counseling, an offer they said was consistent with other cases.
Diamondstein said his client declined the deal and would seek entrance into the diversionary program for first-time offenders, and Rice spent hours after the hearing filling out paperwork and participating in an interview with court officials.
Diamondstein called the incident at the casino "a momentary lapse of reason" but declined to discuss what occurred that night. Rice did not address the case in court or outside the building with reporters.
Prosecutors would need to sign off on allowing Rice into the pretrial program, and First Assistant Prosecutor Diane M. Ruberton declined to say if the state would agree but said that the plea offer was "consistent with other plea offers in similar cases."
"There are guidelines which suggest a crime of violence may be rejected if the prosecutor doesn't consent to the application," Ruberton told reporters.
Diamondstein indicated that Rice would fight the charge if not accepted into the program. "That will not happen," Diamondstein said in reference to the state's plea offer.
Ruberton, meanwhile, said that prosecutors were confident that they could win a conviction if Rice fought the charge. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, though prosecutors signaled jail time is not necessary in Rice's case.
Levin predicted that if the prosecution agrees, a judge would admit Rice into the diversionary program. Pretrial intervention comes with between six months and three years of probation in addition to enrolling in rehabilitation programs that New Jersey courts say focus on personal, cultural, economic and social issues that contributed to the criminal act.
Levin believes prosecutors haven't shown Rice any leniency.
"If anything, I think Ray Rice probably was treated differently because of his fame, and I say that because if this was 'Joe Smith' who had no public persona whatsoever, the [Atlantic County] prosecutor's office never would have even heard of the case and would have never seen the video," Levin said.
Both Rice and Palmer were charged with simple assault after the altercation at the casino, with police saying they had struck each other. Rice was later indicted on the more serious charge after county prosecutors reviewed video surveillance footage of the alleged assault, and Palmer's case was dropped.
A follow-up hearing was scheduled for May 29, though Diamondstein said he anticipated that Rice would know whether he had been accepted into the diversionary program before then. Rice slipped out of a side exit of the courthouse while Diamondstein spoke to reporters.
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"He's done a tremendous amount for the Baltimore community," Diamondstein said. "We hope the court system and the prosecutors agree."
Diamondstein said he has seen the video evidence of the alleged assault, but declined to characterize it. "It's more complex than that," he said.
The only part of the video that has been viewed publicly is a 50-second clip obtained by TMZ. It shows Rice lifting Palmer by her arms out of an elevator and placing her on the floor. She appears limp as he pulls her legs away from the elevator doors and props her up.
On Thursday, Rice and Palmer entered the courthouse side by side, and he told reporters that he was enjoying married life. After the hearing, a fan who said he had followed Rice since he starred at nearby Rutgers University wished him good luck.
"I appreciate it," Rice told the fan.
Baltimore Sun reporters Justin George and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.