The Truth - Features - Atlanta Magazine

The Truth

What really happened in the murder trial of Ray Lewis, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting

Illustration by Douglas Andelin

This story originally appeared in our September 2000 issue.

"When was the last time a high-profile case in Atlanta ended in acquittal?" Bruce Harvey asks. "For a criminal defense lawyer, it doesn't get any better. It ain't never gonna be no sweeter than this."

The colorful, ponytailed defense lawyer smiles broadly, sitting behind his paper-strewn desk in a loft near the Tabernacle club downtown. Behind him, the wall is dominated by a framed photo and signature of legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow. Harvey's Harley-Davidson motorcycle is parked in the lobby downstairs. "Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty," he almost whispers. "You know, this was the right verdict. In that way, justice and the system was vindicated. When it works the way it's supposed to work, our justice system is a glorious thing. The trial wasn't the problem, the problem was that this case ever made it to trial. That was the disgrace."

The Ray Lewis Murder Trial, beyond attracting more national attention than any courthouse drama to unfold here in more than 20 years, became a morality play for modern-day Atlanta. It had the intrigue of a well-crafted whodunit. The glitz and glamour of the Super Bowl. An NFL star accused of murder. The trappings of Buckhead. A setting outside a popular bar in which professional athletes partied in a VIP room. It had the street hustle of hip-hop. Young black men wearing mink coats and drinking $200 bottles of champagne with luscious gold-diggers hanging on each arm. It was the kind of trial that makes or breaks legal careers, that seals reputations. And it attracted the creme de la creme of Atlanta's criminal defense lawyers.

"This was a defense lawyer's dream," says Harvey. "You had a high-profile, nationally significant case and an innocent client."

The result was a stunning and humiliating defeat for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard. CNN legal analyst Roger Cossack went as far as to compare Howard's performance to the bumbling Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther movies. "If they ever write a book listing the most inept prosecutions ever," Cossack wrote in his online column, "this one will be highlighted as the standard by which all others are to be measured."

In a series of interviews, both the defense team and Howard spoke candidly to Atlanta Magazine about the trial. Howard strenuously defended his handling of the case and his decision to enter the courtroom to personally prosecute after a nearly four-year hiatus from trial work. He described witnesses sabotaging the prosecution with organized silence. He answered criticism that he rushed the case to trial, maintaining that the case demanded aggressive prosecution.

Defense lawyers revealed how they shredded the prosecution case. They described political pressure from city officials that led to hastily drawn indictments. Some of the defense lawyers accused Howard of approaching ethical boundaries, even lying to them. (Howard denies all such allegations.) All the lawyers spoke openly of their behind-the-scenes disagreements, detailing awkward moments in coordinating a shared defense strategy. They told the inside story of Lewis' dramatic 11th-hour plea agreement that gave the All-Pro Baltimore Ravens linebacker what he'd wanted all along: probation for a misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice. And they explained how they won the outright acquittals of co-defendants Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley on all charges.

Above all, they talked about the truths that were never revealed in the courtroom. They talked about what really happened that night when two men died in the middle of the street in the heart of Buckhead.

Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting were indicted on Feb. 11, just 11 days after the stabbing deaths of two Akron, Ohio, natives—Jacinth Baker, 21, and Richard Lollar, 24—in the middle of East Paces Ferry Road in the heart of Buckhead. At the press conference announcing the indictments, Mayor Bill Campbell's statement was bold and definitive. "We will not allow wealth or fame or celebrity to pervert justice," he proclaimed, standing in front of a crowded room of local and national media. He described the perpetrators as "literally dripping with blood" and cloaking their actions with silence.

Howard said the deaths in the wee hours of Jan. 31 following the Super Bowl were "brutal and deliberate murders." The charges against the star football player generated national headlines. Court TV would televise the trial from Atlanta. CNN and ESPN and Fox Sports planned gavel-to-gavel coverage.

The sort of flare-ups that would ruffle the defense efforts throughout the case were immediately evident. Sweeting's counsel, Steve Sadow, and Oakley's, Bruce Harvey, believed the defense needed to present a unified front to win. And Sadow thought Lewis' lawyers—Ed Garland and Don Samuel—were going overboard in laying the blame on Oakley and Sweeting. "Look, there's no need to attack us," he told Garland. "We won't be attacking you. They have no case on Ray. Nothing Joseph Sweeting will ever say will hurt Ray Lewis. So back off us."

Garland and Samuel accepted the premise of a unified defense up to a point. If saving their client meant shifting blame to the other co-defendants, so be it. They wanted to put as much distance as possible between their client and his co-defendants: Lewis was a star football player; Sweeting and Oakley were street thugs. "The co-defendants complicated everything for us," says Samuel. "We wanted Steve to go with self-defense for Sweeting. We thought that Ray would likely testify and we knew he'd put the knife in Sweeting's hands. That was a constant struggle. We wanted both those guys to go with self-defense. And Steve was originally thinking self-defense, then he moved away from it."

The position of Sadow and Harvey was firm: They weren't going to admit anything the prosecution couldn't prove. And at that point, the prosecution hadn't revealed evidence that either man ever held a knife that night. "I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the prosecution to produce evidence," says Sadow. "I didn't file many motions before the trial because I didn't want to be on paper taking a position on the knife."

With the trial only a week away, secret negotiations began between the Lewis defense team and prosecutors. Two of the lawyers met with Paul Howard to determine if the district attorney was agreeable to a plea bargain. He offered to let Lewis off with a three-year prison sentence if Lewis pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and then testified against his two co-defendants, Sweeting and Oakley. According to Samuel, Howard also intimated that he had reached a deal with Oakley, and needed an answer fast. Howard denies this.

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