Deal near in Lewis murder case

ATLANTA - Murder charges will be dropped against Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis in exchange for him pleading guilty to obstruction of justice under a tentative agreement worked out yesterday with prosecutors, sources familiar with the case said.

The agreement, which brings to an abrupt end a two-week trial that had gone very badly for prosecutors, recommends Lewis receive 12 months' probation on the misdemeanor obstruction charge, according to sources familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That would preserve his ability to play in the upcoming NFL season. Lewis is believed to be only the second active player in the National Football League to be charged with murder.

Reached at home, Lewis' chief attorney, Edward T. M. Garland, yesterday declined to confirm or deny the agreement. But he said, "We think Monday will be a good day for Ray Lewis."

Ravens owner Art Modell said last night that he was "aware of it," referring to a possible Lewis plea bargain, but said he would not comment "until it comes to fruition today."

Coach Brian Billick said he could not comment. "It wouldn't be prudent."

Lewis' spiritual adviser, the Rev. Richard Harris of Florida, said he had talked to Lewis last night and that the football player felt the tentative deal was "excellent" news.

"He's relieved," Harris said. "His life is no longer on the line."

Both sides were scheduled to appear at 8:30 a.m. today before Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner. If Bonner, who has presided over the trial, rejects probation for Lewis, prosecutors will drop the charges and Lewis will face no penalty, under the terms of the agreement, the sources said.

Under the agreement, Lewis would be required to testify against his two co-defendants, Reginald Oakley, 31, of Baltimore and Joseph Sweeting, 34, of Miami. Both could be damaged by his testimony, according to one source.

Steve Sadow of Atlanta, an attorney for Sweeting, said last night he didn't know of a deal. "That will be very interesting," he said.

The three, all of whom pleaded not guilty, were being tried together on charges of aggravated assault and murder in connection with the stabbing deaths of two men in Atlanta's fashionable nightclub district at 4 a.m. Jan. 31, the day after the Super Bowl was played here.

Prosecutors alleged that the three, after an exchange of vulgar language possibly initiated by the victims, attacked Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24, stabbing them fatally.

The victims were both from Akron, Ohio, but had moved to the Atlanta area.

Witnesses promised

At the beginning of the trial, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard promised jurors he would bring several witnesses to the stand who would describe what happened. But as he moved through his case, witness after witness hedged, testifying to less than they had told investigators.

Even friends of the victims who had been with them during the fight were hazy about who did what. The most damaging testimony came against Oakley, who, several witnesses said, "flipped" and beat Baker.

But the witnesses also said Baker had hit Oakley on the head with a champagne bottle first - giving Oakley grounds to claim self-defense.

No witness testified to seeing Lewis stab anyone. The driver of the limousine that Lewis had rented was expected to be the prosecution's star witness, but he recanted earlier statements to investigators.

Didn't see punch land

Driver Duane Fassett of Severn told jurors he only saw Lewis raise his fist against the man believed to be Lollar. The driver said he looked away and didn't see a punch land.

Prosecutors were trying to recall him to explain contradictions with his earlier statements, but Fassett was fighting the new subpoena. Emotionally distraught over the situation, he was receiving medical care that precluded his being served with the subpoena, according to one source.

Prosecutors were engaged in talks with other passengers in the limousine, two of whom they only identified two weeks ago, but each was demanding immunity from prosecution. The district attorney was reluctant to grant immunity in the event it turned out one of the others in the vehicle was involved in the killings.

Evidence of obstruction

One man did testify to coming upon the brawl and seeing Lewis kicking a victim. But that witness, Chester Anderson, admitted being a con man under indictment for fraud.

There was stronger evidence against Lewis for obstruction. By his own attorney's account, Lewis was evasive and dishonest with police later in the day of the killings. He claimed not to know who he had been with during the fight several hours earlier and refused to look at lineup photos.

Fassett testified that Lewis told him not to tell anyone what he had seen. Others said he expressed concern about his career being damaged.

None of the 10 passengers in Lewis' limousine called police after the clash, despite the vehicle being shot at as it sped away.

No weapon recovered

Two witnesses said they saw companions of Lewis dispose of a bag - which prosecutors allege contained his clothes - at a fast-food restaurant garbage container. The clothes Lewis wore that night have not been recovered by police.

No murder weapon has been recovered. Sweeting purchased three knives at a sporting goods store several days before the killings while Lewis attended a scheduled autograph-signing session.

Sweeting and Oakley may call for a mistrial if Lewis enters into a plea bargain, but the judge is most likely to go ahead with this jury and finish the case, according to one source.

Bonner could grant a recess to allow the co-defendants' attorneys time to interview Lewis before he takes the witness stand. Otherwise he could take the stand later today.

Allows him to play

One source said Lewis "doesn't like pleading to anything, but he knows his statement to police will hurt him, and this agreement allows him to get back to football and to play this season."

The prosecution's case against Lewis had gone so badly at trial that many observers thought the judge might throw the case out by issuing a "directed verdict" of not guilty. Defense attorneys said they planned to request such a verdict at the conclusion of the prosecution's case, which had been expected to come today or tomorrow.

Faced with that possibility, Howard called Garland yesterday morning with the offer, the sources said. The judge was contacted, and the session today in her courtroom was set up, the sources said.

Howard could not be reached last night.

NFL discipline

It remains unclear whether pleading guilty to a misdemeanor would expose Lewis to disciplinary action by the NFL, although Commissioner Paul Tagliabue indicated last month that he would take no action against Lewis if he were to be acquitted of the murder charges.

Tagliabue, who suspended three NFL players for two games earlier this year for off-the-field misconduct, also indicated suspensions would continue for players who are convicted of crimes.

Two players, Matt O'Dwyer and Jumbo Elliott, were suspended for two games, and a third, Jason Fabini, was fined $14,000, for their involvement in a bar fight last season. In addition, Denard Walker, a starting cornerback for the Tennessee Titans, was suspended for two games after pleading guilty to assault on the mother of his son.

Personal conduct policy

The NFL had instituted a violent-crime policy that was recently renamed "personal conduct policy." It requires psychological evaluation for any player accused of violent crime and a fine or suspension for those convicted of or admitting a violent crime.

Several players have gone into counseling under the policy and several have been fined, but none has been suspended.

Sun staff writer Ken Murray contributed to this article.