Conflict & Tragedy
Does Ray Lewis deserve continued scrutiny for 2000 double-murder rap?
First, I have never met Ray Lewis. I have never spoken to him, or shook his hand, or made eye contact with him. I have never received anything of value or otherwise from Ray Lewis. I‘ve only been in the same room with him on one occasion, inside the Atlanta courtroom where he stood charged with the murder of two African-American men following the Super Bowl in 2000. I only saw the back of his head, his broad shoulders and the bevy of beautiful women seated behind him.
During Lewis’ trial I served as a legal analyst for the local NBC affiliate. Each day, with several other attorneys, I would watch the trial on a monitor in the studio and offer commentary to the station’s audience during the break. Among this group of attorneys were the personal attorney of Creflo Dollar, pastor of the World Changers Ministries mega-church, and an attorney who would later represent several young men who accused New Birth Missionary Baptist Church pastor Eddie Long of sexual misconduct.
After a couple of days, the station asked me to remain after the court session had ended and give a recap for the evening news program. Additionally, each Sunday morning I was asked to appear on air and give an overview of the past week of the trial and to make some projections about what to look for in the upcoming week. This Sunday morning news program was hosted by Tiffany Cochran, daughter of the late attorney Johnnie Cochran.
While my colleagues concentrated on the sensationalism of the trial due to Lewis’ celebrity status, I took the approach that I often did when defending a “no-name” defendant in a capital murder case. I operated from the perspective that there are legal fictions that the law considers to be truth, and then there is Truth.
Thus I viewed the proceedings honestly seeking the Truth, because the jurors would take an oath to honestly seek the Truth. When I tried cases, if I could get the Truth to walk into the courtroom, I would ask the jury to nullify the legal fictions known as the truth and render a not-guilty verdict based upon their oath to honestly seek the Truth.
I learned this trial technique as a teenager watching the late Hank O’Neil try cases in the Bibb County Courthouse in Georgia. I had a job working in the kitchen of a private hospital that was within walking distance, so when things were slow I would sneak out and find a trial at the courthouse. A few years before the Ray Lewis trial I had seen Johnnie Cochran successfully use the art of nullification in defending O. J. Simpson in a double-murder case.
The state started off poorly in its prosecution of Ray Lewis. At the bond hearing the late owner of the Baltimore Ravens, Art Modell, flew into town to testify on behalf of Lewis. The young prosecutor asked Modell a leading question without knowing the answer. He thought he had the right question to make Modell’s support of Lewis seem self-serving. After he painted a picture of how important Lewis was to the defensive scheme of the Ravens, the young prosecutor went in for the kill. (And here I am relying upon my shorthand notes from more than a decade ago.)
“Isn’t it true you have never had a player on your team with a big celebrity status like Ray Lewis?” the prosecutor asked.
I sat in the courtroom and said to the person seated next to me, “Ray Lewis just got his bond.”
Modell responded, “No, that is not true.”
The stunned prosecutor had fumbled the ball on the opening drive. “What, no… You mean you have had a player like Ray Lewis before?”
“Who?” the stunned prosecutor asked.
“I once had a fellow by the name of Jim Brown,” Modell replied.
A hush fell over the courtroom. Ray Lewis, who I recall was not present at the bond hearing, was granted a reasonable bond.
The state had not researched the facts. Anyone who had followed football for any length of time knew that Modell bought the Cleveland Browns from Paul Brown back in the day when Jim Brown was the best running back in the NFL and its most vocal Black Power advocate.
When the trial started, District Attorney Paul Howard decided he would try the case. After all, he had been one of the state’s top criminal and civil defense attorneys before running for the post of district attorney. The problem was he had not tried a case in more than a decade. He was rusty, and because his job as district attorney had put him in a tug-of-war with the judges for control over the Fulton County Courthouse, he came off as combative toward the trial judge. He did not play well in front of the jury and the glare of the television cameras.
Two days before the infamous plea deal was struck—in which the murder charges against Lewis were dropped in exchange for his testimony against his two co-defendants—I went to the courtroom to observe the trial in real time. I wanted to look into the eyes of the jury. I saw a jury wanting very much to give Howard the guilty verdict he sought, but their eyes said they did not believe the state’s case against Lewis.
During my analysis of the trial that Friday evening, I talked about the mood in the courtroom but did not offer any conjecture about what I saw in the eyes of the jury. I saved my thoughts on the jury for the Sunday morning show, after I carefully considered what, if any, influence my comments would have should any of the jurors peek and see my analysis on television. Little did I know the prosecution would be watching my commentary.
When Tiffany Cochran broached the subject, I opined that I did not think Howard would get a guilty verdict on the murder charges against Lewis, and that if Lewis walked the co-defendants might walk too. By the time I had gotten into my car and driven to my church service fifteen minutes away, Howard had placed a call to Lewis’ defense attorneys and offered to discuss a plea deal. When I arrived home from church, at around 1:15 p.m., the news was reporting that a plea deal had been struck.
The proverbial Truth simply was not on the side of the state to convict Ray Lewis of murder, and none of his actions tied him to the acts of his co-defendants. I knew it while watching the proceedings from the television studio, and when I sat in the courtroom observing the jury I knew that they knew it too.
Shannon Sharpe, a commentator for CBS Sports and a former teammate of Lewis’, sat down with Lewis before Sunday’s Super Bowl. Lewis told him that a man looked him in the face back then and said: “We know you did not have anything to do with this but you are going down for it.”
Lewis also defended paying money to the families of the two young men killed that night in 2000 to settle civil litigation, saying that he helps a lot of families and did not see why he should not help those two families as well.
After the interview, Sharpe’s colleague Boomer Esiason said, “I’m not sure I buy the answer.”
Had Lewis been convicted in that Atlanta courtroom more than a decade ago, I’m not sure the jury verdict would have spoken the Truth about what happened that fateful night following the Super Bowl in 2000. It is doubt like this, based upon reason, that says Paul Howard did the right thing in dismissing murder charges against Ray Lewis, as Truth was about to walk into that courtroom and justice would have served no one on the side of the victims.