Originally created 05/15/00

Linebacker's murder trial set for today



ATLANTA -- It was 4 a.m. on Jan. 31, and the nightclubs of Atlanta's trendy Buckhead district were sending post-Super Bowl revelers into the cold night.

A fight broke out among several young men and soon two of them lay on the ground, fatally stabbed. A limousine roared away as someone fired a gun at it.

Those are the few undisputed facts in what has become known as the Ray Lewis case, named for the most famous of the three men charged with murder in the deaths of Jacinth "Shorty" Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, both of Decatur.

The murder trial of Mr. Lewis, an All-Pro linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, and co-defendants Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting begins today in Atlanta with jury selection.

Prosecutors have said in court documents that Mr. Lollar and Mr. Baker argued with Mr. Lewis and his friends after leaving Cobalt Lounge. Mr. Lollar and Mr. Baker ran after seeing their foes had knives, the documents said, and Mr. Lewis, Mr. Sweeting and Mr. Oakley chased them down.

"Witnesses observed Lewis grab and punch Lollar in the chest area," according to the documents. "Sweeting, who was observed with a knife seconds earlier, also punched Lollar in the stomach. During the beating, Lollar was stabbed approximately four times.

"Oakley pursued and ultimately caught Baker. Oakley punched and beat Baker in his torso ... During this beating, Baker was stabbed approximately four times."

Some outsiders say the trial risks becoming an exercise in finger-pointing. That could force Judge Alice D. Bonner to grant the separate trials lawyers for Mr. Lewis and Mr. Oakley have requested, said Atlanta defense attorney Michael R. Hauptman.

"If Ray Lewis gets up there and says `I didn't do it. They did,' it will put Oakley and Sweeting in a position where they absolutely have to take the stand," Mr. Hauptman said.

But Joe Burford, senior staff attorney with the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, said defendants can get a fair trial even if a co-defendant testifies against them. Defendants always have a constitutional right not to testify, he said.

Mr. Lewis' lawyers are expected to argue that he didn't stab anyone and acted as peacemaker.

"He did not have a knife; he did not use a knife," attorney Ed Garland said soon after being hired by Mr. Lewis in early February. Mr. Garland said Mr. Lewis was a "horrified bystander" who tried to prevent and then break up the fight.

If prosecutors can persuade a jury that Mr. Lewis participated in the brawl that led to the two deaths, he can be convicted of murder even if he didn't stab anyone.

Mr. Lewis, who has a four-year, $26 million contract with the Ravens and possibly many more years in pro football, stands to fall hardest in this case.

"He knows how different his life is as a professional athlete," said Kathleen Hessert, owner of Sports Media Challenge, a Charlotte, N.C., media relations company that advises college and professional athletes. "He knows how it feels to have a multimillion-dollar contract in his hands and he knows he could lose it all," said Kathleen Hessert, who owns a sports media-relations firm in Charlotte, N.C.