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What really happened in the murder trial of Ray Lewis, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting
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.
The apparent revelation that a codefendant
had flipped sent the Lewis
defense team into near panic. They called
Sadow. He scoffed and said he would
phone Harvey, who was representing
Oakley with a lawyer named David
Wolfe. “If Bruce was going to cut a deal,
he would let us know,” Sadow told them.
“Bruce would never outright lie to me; if
something is up and he can’t talk about
it, then he’ll tell me that.”
Harvey’s response was simple: “Complete
bullshit. No way. They’ve offered us
20 years for voluntary manslaughter.
We’re not taking that.”
Despite Sadow’s assurances, the Lewis
team couldn’t be certain. Harvey’s first
loyalty was to his client. But would
a prosecutor so blatantly mislead
them? Either there was a deal or there
wasn’t. Someone wasn’t telling the truth.
The next day, following a hearing at the
courthouse, they scouted for more information.
Samuel, Garland and fellow Lewis defense team member Tony Axam stopped by the district attorney’s office.
They again discussed the three-year
prison deal. And this time, Howard suggested
that Lewis would be paroled after
six months, assuring them he possessed
the political clout to make it happen.
“That’s bullshit, Paul,” Samuel shot
back. “A first-year lawyer might fall for
that, but don’t try that stuff on me. You
don’t get paroled in this state.” Lewis’
position was simple: He wasn’t involved
in the fight, and he would plead only to a
misdemeanor crime with no jail time.
The defense lawyers say the district
attorney reminded them of his deal with
Oakley. “In fact, Bruce Harvey and
David Wolfe will be here at three o’clock
to finalize it,” he said. A few minutes
later, Howard received a phone call. He
listened for a moment, then put the
phone down. “They’re here,” he said.
“This is your last chance.”
They again rejected the deal.
Howard suggested it would be awkward
if the two defense teams ran into
each other in the hallway of the DA’s
office when one defendant was about to
turn against the other. Samuel says
Howard asked them to hide in a room
until the other lawyers were safely past.
When they finally departed, Samuel and
Axam raced to Samuel’s Buckhead office.
They were frantic. The landscape of the
entire case had just changed. If Oakley
had cut a deal, he would tell the prosecution
exactly what they wanted to hear.
Samuel and Axam marched inside,
turned to go down the hall and then
stopped dead in their tracks.
Bruce Harvey wasn’t cutting a deal
with the district attorney; he was sitting
in their conference room reviewing reams
of paperwork turned over by the prosecution.
There was no plea agreement
with Oakley. Wolfe was at the DA’s
office. And he was sounding out the
prosecutors about the odds of a favorable
plea. But the visit was routine; no
one expected a favorable plea.
It was a sobering moment for the defense team. Prosecutors and criminal
defense lawyers regularly engage in pretrial
maneuvering that includes enough
feigning and posturing to be worthy of a
poker game. But to the defense, this went
way beyond that. “A certain amount of
bluffing is acceptable because we are
adversaries,” says Samuel. “But this was
not a whole lot different than saying, ‘I
found a witness who saw your client with
a knife,’ when there’s really no witness.
Imagine if someone had accepted a plea
based on that representation. It was far
too close to the line.”
At the same time, it served as a beacon
to the defense team: If the district attorney
was this desperate, then he obviously
had no confidence in his case. With the
trial only a week away, Paul Howard had
just made it known he was at the helm of
a sinking ship.
THE CASE FOR THE PROSECUTION
From the outset, prosecutors faced a
tall challenge: Bringing order to what
was essentially a street fight between
a group of people from Ohio calling
themselves the “OH-I0″ and a group of
people who accompanied Lewis. Everyone
agrees that the two groups had
an altercation outside the Cobalt Lounge
on East Paces Ferry Road. Everyone
agrees that Oakley was angry, screaming
expletives at the Ohio group. And that
Lewis grabbed him by the waist, pulled
him away, took him down the street and
put him into the limo.
Moments later, the Ohio guys walked
by the limo. Lewis and Sweeting were
about to get inside the limo when Richard
Lollar yelled back at them, “Fuck the
niggaz! This is OH-I0!” Then the smallest
member of the OH-I0 group—Jacinth
Baker, who stood just 5 feet, 3
inches tall—stopped. He turned around
and returned to where the hulking Lewis
was standing. “Who the fuck do you
think you guys are?” he demanded.
Oakley sprang from the car and
inserted himself between Baker and
Lewis. Baker slugged Oakley with a
Moet champagne bottle. Then two guys
from Ohio jumped Sweeting. In the
words of Lewis, that’s when all hell
broke loose. About 90 seconds later,
Baker was lying in a pool of his own
blood, dying from a stab wound that
pierced his heart. Lollar was nearby, dead
from a stab wound to his heart.
The entire case revolved around what
happened in those 90 seconds. “It was
very difficult for the state to present a
coherent and cohesive picture of what
happened,” says Harvey. “It was 4 a.m.
Everyone was drinking and partying. The
incident took place in 90 seconds of furious
action. I don’t think you ever get certainty
out of chaos, with the exception of
physics. In any chaotic and violent event,
peoples’ perceptions are going to be dramatically
different. The OH-I0 gang
gave one version of events. The Ray
Lewis group, all of them gave versions
that were different. And the third parties
who saw it were completely_divergent.”
The spacious Courtroom 1A was
packed to standing room only when testimony
began on May 23. The rows
behind the prosecution were filled with
media and relatives of the victims;
supporters of the defendants sat behind
their table on the left side of the courtroom.
The balance of the seats were
often filled with retirees, people on vacation,
a few stray homeless people and
lawyers occasionally darting in and out
of the courtroom to catch a glimpse of
the defense team at work. Lewis, sitting
between Samuel and Garland, appeared to be taking copious notes on a yellow
legal pad; he was actually doodling and
practicing his autograph.
The first courtroom bombshell was the
arrival on the opening day of the trial of
the district attorney to prosecute the case.
Howard says he decided to handle it
personally because the evidence was
complicated and a celebrity defendant
raised the stakes. “If we lost, the blame
would be laid on my assistants and I
didn’t think that was fair,” he says. “I
decided I would take the heat. Plus, they
had so many lawyers; it was nine against
two when I joined.” (Of course, Howard
also would have received all the accolades
had he won, and this was the kind
of high-profile case that could ensure his
political career for years.)
It was, the defense lawyers agree, a
decision that quickly backfired. “Paul
really is a top-notch trial lawyer,” says
Sadow. “But he was rusty. He hadn’t
tried a case in four years.”
“I don’t know why he felt compelled
to do it,” says Samuel. “You don’t go
trying cases when you’re the district
attorney. He’s the policy maker; he’s got
people who are paid to be the trial
lawyers. It takes time to get comfortable
in court. If I haven’t been in court for six
months, I’ll go try a DUI case just to
warm up, to get in front of a jury again.”
Howard opened with a fundamental
mistake: He exaggerated his evidence and
made promises to the jury that he couldn’t
keep. He promised jurors that a trail
of blood would lead directly to Lewis
and mark him as a murderer. He
promised to prove Lewis kicked and
punched the victims. He promised to
prove that Oakley fought with Baker and
that Sweeting fought with Lollar, and
that they stabbed them to death. He
promised that Lewis’ limo driver heard
Oakley and Sweeting confess to the stabbings.
By the end of the trial, all these
promises would prove empty.
The prosecution stumbled off the starting
blocks. They presented two store
employees who saw Sweeting purchase
three knives at an autograph session
Lewis held before the Super Bowl at the
Sports Authority at GwinnettPlace Mall.
Not content to leave it at that, they also
called a friend of Lewis who was in the
store and witnessed the purchase. There
was just one problem: The friend was the
object of what he considered a racially
disparaging comment uttered by Atlanta Police Homicide Lieutenant Mike Smith.
The man had abruptly ended his interview
with Smith and stormed out of the
police department. The lead detective in
the investigation, Ken Allen, was sufficiently
offended to not only follow the
witness outside and apologize, but to
include the incident in his investigative
report. The snafu was obvious: In front
of a jury that included 10 blacks,
Howard had just introduced evidence
that the supervisor of the investigation
was a racist.
Howard then put an eyewitness on the
stand who couldn’t even place the defendants
at the scene. From that point,
things only got worse: The prosecution’s
next two witnesses, Chris Shinholster
and Jeff Gwen, put a knife in someone
else’s hands. The two members of the
OH-10 group each described an altercation
with Oakley outside the Cobalt
Lounge. Gwen said he was upset that
night because his ride had left him
behind. He was cursing loudly, calling his
friends “ho-ass niggaz,” when Oakley
walked up and demanded to know
whom Gwen was calling a “ho-ass
nigga.” Oakley seemed drunk and belligerent,
and Lewis grabbed him from
behind and led him away. A second man
then walked up and said, “Everything’s
cool, my friend’s just drunk.” Gwen
looked at the man’s hands. “If everything’s
cool,” he replied, “Why do you
have a knife?”
Both Gwen and Shinholster agreed the
man with the knife was not one of the
defendants. Gwen said the man was clad
in black leather pants and a jacket and a
derby. That matched a description of
limo passenger Kwame King, Lewis’
lifelong friend and a Florida A&M
University doctoral student. Shinholster
said the man with the knife was clad in a
black mink coat. That description
matched someone else with the Lewis
party, Carlos Stafford, a law student
Later, when the melee broke out,
Gwen said he saw Lewis “tussling” with
one of the victims, Lollar. He saw Oakley
punching the other victim, Baker, in the
stomach. Then the man with the knife
began chasing Gwen, who turned and
ran for his life.
The defense was lying in wait on cross-examination.
They knew that Gwen had
originally given authorities a written
statement saying he saw Lewis punch
Lollar. They also knew that he had told
prosecutors a few weeks later that he was
mistaken and actually saw only Lewis
wrestling with Lollar. The law requires
prosecutors to turn over all evidence to
the defense, and prosecutors had never
informed them about the change in
Gwen’s statement. The defense discovered
the contradiction only when they
interviewed him themselves in Ohio.
Samuel’s first instinct had been to file a
pre-trial motion protesting the omission;
Sadow had convinced him to save it for
maximum dramatic impact at the trial.
But by the time Gwen reached the stand,
the Lewis team had cooled on the idea:
They didn’t want the jury to know that
Gwen had ever said that Lewis punched
someone, and Garland didn’t raise the
point during his cross-examination.
Sadow was flabbergasted by the strategy.
“I told them I was going to do it myself. I
said, ‘You guys just don’t understand the
importance it will have.'”
Sadow’s cross-examination of Gwen
was cutting. Step by step, he led Gwen
through the chronology. How he’d
returned to Atlanta on Feb. 28 and took
prosecutors to the scene, and tried to
reenact everything that had happened that night. How they had asked him to
read a copy of his initial statement to
police. How he’d pointed out a mistake
to them. How Assistant District Attorney
Clint Rucker had instructed him to
underline the mistaken passage.
Then came perhaps the most riveting
moment of the trial.
Sadow was standing at the podium
between the prosecution and defense
tables, barely two feet away from Paul
Howard. He made a dramatic turn, first
glancing at the jury and then looking
down at the prosecutors. “May we please
have a copy of that underlined
statement?” His voice was forceful and
angry. Silence hung in the courtroom
while prosecutors sat stunned, crestfallen.
Finally, Rucker rose to make a meek
defense: He acknowledged that Gwen
told him there was a mistake in his
statement but remembered nothing
underlined. It didn’t work. The point was
hammered home: One of the few witnesses
who claimed to have seen Lewis throw
a punch had recanted that testimony, and
the prosecution never told the defense.
Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner
was obviously angered by the omission.
It wasn’t the first time the prosecution
had failed to turn over evidence to the
defense. She scheduled a meeting with
the lawyers in her chambers the following
morning. When they gathered at
8:45 a.m., it was clearly Bonner’s intention
to scold Rucker and Howard’s
intention to take the hit for his assistant.
According to Sadow, almost as soon as
the judge began speaking, Howard
interrupted her. Bonner cut him off and
said she would give him the opportunity
to say something when she finished.
As she began to speak, Howard again
interrupted the judge; she again told
him he could speak when she was finished.
When Howard interrupted her a
third time, Bonner called an abrupt end
to the session and ordered everyone out
of her chambers.
Howard says he did the right thing.
“I have to protect my folks,” he says.
“I decided I would deflect it on me. I
took that one.”
But Bonner was noticeably short-tempered
with the prosecution for the balance
of the trial. “I remember thinking,
does Paul have cotton in his ears?” says
Sadow. “He had thoroughly pissed off
the judge. He didn’t get a discretionary
break from her for the rest of the trial.”
THE STAR WITNESS
No prosecution witness was more anxiously
anticipated than Duane Fassett,
Lewis’s limo driver. It was Fassett’s
account to police of Lewis punching
someone during the melee that led to the
football star’s arrest. The driver implicated
Sweeting and Oakley, too, saying he
saw them fight and then heard them confess
to the stabbings once they got back
in the limo. There was just one catch:
Fassett’s story seemed to change each
time he told it.
In fact, Fassett’s lawyer, David Irwin,
called Garland before the trial to inform
him that his client was “not going to be
saying those things they have him saying.”
Fassett was prepared to swear that
his statements to police were coerced
through threats and intimidation.
When Fassett took the witness stand
on May 25, he looked sad and sallow
and utterly frightened. No one else had
seen Lewis throw a punch. No one else
could link Sweeting and Oakley to the
stabbings. Fassett was carrying the
weight of the entire prosecution on his
frail shoulders. And the prosecution was
totally unaware that he was about to
betray them. “I’d actually taken a trip to Baltimore to interview him’,” says
Howard. “And he got up to demonstrate
on me, using me as the model, how Ray
Lewis punched them. His wife was there,
his lawyer. What happened [at the trial]
was very much a surprise to us.”
Fassett testified to the following: He
saw Lewis raise his fist and yell, “Knock
this shit off!” Fassett then turned away
at that very moment to look at Oakley
fighting with someone. He also saw
Sweeting involved in two different fights.
Beyond that, he saw absolutely nothing.
And he heard absolutely nothing.
Certainly no confession from Oakley
Howard now found himself boxed
into a corner. On one hand, he desperately
needed to get Fassett’s testimony on
the record; without it, he didn’t have
much of a case left. On the other hand,
he didn’t dare confront Fassett on the
witness stand with his previous statements
to police; if he did that, the defense
was prepared to suggest police coercion
and destroy Fassett’s credibility.
Howard decided to attempt a legal
end-around, call the detective who had
taken Fassett’s statements and have him
read them into evidence. Samuel blocked
him by pointing out that Georgia law
requires prosecutors to confront a witness
with any inconsistent statements and
give them the chance to explain.
Fassett was gone. Gwen was gone.
Howard was left with just one witness
who had seen Lewis strike the victims.
And he was a professional con artist
named Chester Anderson who was
destroyed on the witness stand by a searing
cross-examination from Garland.
“Chester Anderson was a trial lawyer’s
dream witness,” says Garland. “He
provided important and incriminating
testimony, and we showed he was a liar. I
really believe that witness undermined
the integrity of the prosecution’s entire
case. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was
the turning point, psychologically, for the
jury. It came into focus that the prosecution
had to rely on unreliable evidence.”
Sadow agrees that it was a turning
point, but for different reasons. “Chester
Anderson was a calculated risk that
went horribly wrong for the prosecution,”
he says. “At that point, there was
no other evidence against Ray Lewis, so
they had to introduce Anderson. The
cross-examination was Ed Garland at his
absolute best. But I believe Ed never
stopped worrying about Chester Anderson,
whether the jury might somehow
believe him. Which is why we wound up
with Ray Lewis taking a plea.”
The call came on a Sunday night at
10:00, just as the trial was about to enter
its third week. Sadow was at home,
ready for bed. It was a reporter from the
Baltimore Sun. Did Sadow know that
Ray Lewis had reached an agreement
with the prosecution? Lewis was going
to plea to a misdemeanor count of
obstruction of justice and testify against
Sweeting and Oakley.
Sadow was stunned. What was the
logic? Why now? With so little evidence,
nearly everyone thought Judge Bonner
was poised to dismiss all charges at the
end of the prosecution’s case on a directed verdict. All along, Sadow had known
he could trust Harvey; he’d never known
whether he could trust Garland. And
now his fears were being confirmed.
He called Samuel and Garland to find
out whether it was true. At first, Samuel
hedged. They had agreed with the district
attorney not to tell anyone; if word of the
deal leaked and turned up in the newspapers, then the judge might refuse to
accept it. “Steve, I’ll remind you of what
you said Bruce would say,” Samuel finally
responded. “I’ll never lie to you. And I
can’t tell you what’s going on.” When
Sadow responded that he already knew
what was going on, Samuel and Garland
confirmed the deal. But they didn’t tip him
as to what Lewis’ testimony would be.
With the plea making national headlines
overnight, the courtroom was
jammed the next morning. Lewis
appeared just after 9 a.m., clad in a tailored
dark brown suit that showed off his
V-shaped, boxer’s torso, from the small
waist to the immensely broad shoulders.
As he waited for court to convene, Lewis
nervously squeezed a tennis ball with his
left hand and huddled with his lawyers.
The lawyers representing Oakley and
Sweeting looked grim, even shell-shocked.
This was their worst nightmare.
Just two days earlier, it was all but
certain their clients would be home by
the weekend. Now, the entire case would
ride on what Lewis had told prosecutors.
They were prepared for the worst.
Harvey vowed to tear up Lewis on the
witness stand. “The state just spent two
weeks trying to prove he’s a liar,” he told
reporters after the plea. “He was a liar
when he was a defendant, but now he’s
truthful because he’s on their side? I don’t
The defense team was taken to a jury
room to watch Lewis’ videotaped statement
to prosecutors. As the 30-minute
tape played, they waited for bombshells.
Then it slowly began to sink in: No
bombshells were coming. Nothing Lewis
said implicated Oakley, although he did
damage Sweeting. According to Lewis,
Sweeting approached him after the stabbings
and said, “Man, they was trippin’.
Every time they hit me, I hit them back.”
And with a closed knife inside his fist, he
had demonstrated his punches. Otherwise,
Lewis stuck to the defense team’s
version of events.
John Bergendahl, Sadow’s co-counsel,
still wanted to go after Lewis. Sadow
wasn’t so sure. What if they embraced
Lewis instead? Sadow did something
he’d done throughout the trial: He
scanned the message boards on the
Internet seeking reaction to the turn of
events. They offered him the perspective
of ordinary people, the kind of people
who were on the jury. Sentiment was still
running strong that the prosecution hadn’t proved its case.
“I decided if you attack him, then his
memory is probably going to get a lot
better,” Sadow says. “I decided I was
going to turn Ray Lewis into the best
witness I could have. And infer that seeing
the knife in Sweeting’s fist was an
add-on he’d made in order to please the
This was Howard’s last stand. At no
other point in the trial did he act more
like a prosecutor—indignant, probing, a
warrior for the truth—than when Lewis
took the witness stand. It was an impressive
and, ultimately, empty performance.
Despite three hours of questions and
answers, Lewis gave him almost nothing.
He said that two men from OH-I0 had
jumped Sweeting. Meanwhile, Oakley
and Carlos Stafford fought with Jacinth
Baker. He saw Oakley get Baker on the
ground, and then hit him in the chest
from behind while Stafford kicked him.
Through it all, Lewis never once placed
the knives in the hands of either Oakley
or Sweeting during the fight. He never
saw them stab anyone. He never heard
them confess. He implicated no one.
When the district attorney finished,
Sadow walked up to the podium to begin
cross-examination. He laid his legal pad
down in front of him, then looked up at
Lewis and smiled. “My, things change,
don’t they?” Sadow said.
“Yes, they do,” responded Lewis. And
then he did a remarkable thing. He
looked up at Sadow and he winked.
The verdict came six days later. The
jury had deliberated less than three hours.
Not guilty on all counts. Sweeting and
Oakley were free men. That night, Sadow
and Harvey accompanied them in a
limousine to celebrate at the Gold Club.
The defense lawyers contend the case
made it to trial because city officials
exerted tremendous pressure to make
arrests, just as they did to finger a suspect
in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing
during the Olympic Games. Atlanta was
again hosting an international sports
event: the Super Bowl. The city’s reputation
stood to be soiled by yet another act
Garland has been unflinchingly vocal
in placing much of the blame for an
ill-advised prosecution on the mayor’s
office. “The mayor came to the press
conference,” says Garland. “That’s not his function. He’s not in the prosecution
business. Political pressure created the
sudden indictment. It was dramatic, it was
for the six o’clock news. The question of
‘Can we prove it?’ got completely lost.”
Both Campbell and Howard deny
there was any pressure exerted. “I was
surprised Ed Garland made those
remarks,” says Howard. “I don’t know
where that came from. The mayor called
early in the investigation and he thought
we should hold a press conference
because we weren’t commenting to that
point. Other than that, I didn’t ever talk
to the mayor; he knows I wouldn’t pay
attention to him anyway. We followed
normal procedures on this case.”
But normal procedures weren’t always
followed. Lewis was arrested even
though the lead detective did not want to
charge him. And while suspects routinely
languish in jail for months waiting for
the district attorney to bring an indictment,
Lewis and Sweeting and Oakley
were indicted just 11 days after the
deaths. At that point, prosecutors were
relying almost solely on Fassett’s statement;
they had yet to identify, much less
interview, the passengers in the limo.
The rush also produced a flawed
indictment that would prove key to the
acquittals. The original arrest warrant
against Lewis was open-ended, alleging
that he caused the deaths by stabbing,
punching or kicking. That language was
inexplicably narrowed to allege the deaths
were caused only by “cutting and stabbing.”
That forced the prosecution into
needing to literally put knives in the hands of each defendant to win a conviction.
The prosecution easily proved that
Sweeting and Oakley—perhaps even
Lewis—had punched or kicked the
victims; it never came close to proving
they wielded knives. Had Howard simply
adopted the language of the arrest
warrant for the indictment, he would
have had more than enough evidence to
convict. “That was a terrible blunder by
the DA,” says Samuel.
Defense lawyers cite another critical
error by the prosecutors: They had taken
a street brawl and tried to turn it into
murder with malice and then refused to
budge despite substantial evidence the
theory was plain wrong. “Once they’d
held that press conference and then
opposed bond for Lewis, what were
they gonna do?” asks Bruce Harvey.
“They were locked into it at that point, absolutely locked into it.”
Harvey believes that stance forced
prosecutors to downplay and even try to
hide evidence that indicated otherwise.
“During the trial, they misled,” he says.
“They deliberately hid things. They
deliberately didn’t present information
if it didn’t fall into their view of things.
It was abhorrent. I’ll never trust them
again, anything the Fulton County
District Attorney’s Office tells me. There
were things in this case that were
It went far beyond withholding Jeff
Gwen’s change in testimony from the
defense. In his final closing argument,
Howard so blatantly mischaracterized
what defense lawyers said in their opening
arguments that Judge Bonner made
him stand up afterward and correct his
errors to the jury.
When the prosecution failed to note,
on its chart detailing evidence in the
limo, an unidentified blood sample
mixed with the blood of Oakley and
Baker, Harvey attempted to correct it.
Howard jumped up and accused Harvey
of “defacing our exhibit” with the correction.
The prosecution missteps resulted in
an unusual dynamic: Typically, the prosecution
is viewed as the hunter of the truth
and the defense endeavors to sufficiently
muddy the waters to win an acquittal;
this time, it was the defense lawyers who
seemed to be searching for truth while
the prosecution appeared willing to do
almost anything to salvage a victory.
Howard admits to no missteps in his
prosecution and says the wording of the
indictment made little difference. The
case, according to the DA, was stymied
simply because witness after witness
either changed their story or refused to
testify. “There was a whole wall of
orchestrated silence,” he says. “Some of
our witnesses got up on the stand and
changed their testimony.” From his perspective,
the fact that no one was convicted
“defies imagination.” I
Lewis’ fame presented an additional problem. “There’s a tendency to give a
celebrity the benefit of the doubt,” he
says. “People don’t believe somebody who
makes that much money would commit a
crime like that. It also changes the scope of
the legal representation. A case like this
might normally be handled by the public
defender’s office. And I believe it makes a
judge act differently. Losing a case doesn’t mean you rushed to judgment. If you’re holds
not willing to try a tough case, I guess
you’ll never lose a case.”
In mock trials organized by the
defense, Lewis was actually convicted of
aggravated assault. Of course, Ed Garland
handled those prosecutions, and he
took quite a different approach than
Howard. “We were prepared to deal
with a much more substantive case than
was presented,” he says. “There was an
absence of a clear theme by the prosecutors.
There was a failure to really
articulate their theory. If they had
developed the case against Lewis in the
strongest way, they would have argued
that he had to have known the knives
were out there. They should have articulated
that idea. Made it a group action.
It was the pack that did it. It was the
pack that attacked. It was the pack that
killed. And who was the leader of the
pack? Ray Lewis.”
The evidence against the defendants
was so underwhelming that both Sadow
and Harvey are still mystified by Lewis’
decision to accept the plea bargain. “We
were winning,” says Sadow. “Sweeting
was going home. Everybody was going
home. Everything we’d wanted to
accomplish, we’d done.”
Harvey learned of the Lewis deal as he
exited a Bruce Springsteen concert at
Philips Arena. “That’s bullshit,” Harvey
responded. “There’s no way. He’s gonna
walk on a directed verdict. There’s no
way they’d take the chickenshit route
now.” Harvey laughs as he recounts the
moment. “Guess I was wrong,” he says.
“I really don’t want to second-guess
them. I can’t say I would have done the
But would he? Harvey doesn’t respond
for several moments, considering the
question. He is a warrior, a man with a
cobra tattooed on his body. He can’t
betray his nature. Finally, he smiles and
shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Never.”
Essentially, Lewis had 26 million
reasons to take the deal. His goal was to
clear his name and play professional
football again and fulfill his $26 million
contract. This was his only sure bet.
“We were trying two cases: one in the
courtroom and one in the court of public
opinion,” says Garland. “We did not
want people saying a slick lawyer got
him off. Nothing was guaranteed. There
were more witnesses out there. If it goes
to the jury, what happens if one juror holds out? All of a sudden, you have a
new trial. Any competent lawyer who
could get murder charges dismissed with
a deal like that would be committing
malfeasance if they didn’t take it. This
was an absolute no-brainer.”
Every defense lawyer in the Ray
Lewis Murder Trial professes to know
the Truth. And, like the witnesses, each
has a different truth to tell. Even Harvey
and Wolfe, who represented the same
client, relate divergent accounts of what
really happened that night. But when
viewed as individual parts of a puzzle
rather than competing versions, the
divergent pieces suddenly fit together
into a coherent story.
It was well established at the trial that
Jacinth Baker was selling marijuana at
the Cobalt; six small bags of pot were
found in the pocket of his pants. His
buddy, Jeff Gwen, testified that he
[Gwen] was smoking marijuana
“blunts” inside the Cobalt that night.
According to Harvey, Baker approached
the Lewis group inside the club and
tried to sell them a bag of dope. He was
turned down but persisted, going to a
second member of the group. Oakley
approached him and said, “We already
told you to get the fuck away from here.
We don’t want no dope.” A few minutes
later, outside, Baker accosted them a
third time. That’s what led to the confrontation
between Baker, and Oakley
and Kwame King.
The OH-I0 guys were trash-talking,
according to Sadow and Wolfe. They
dogged the women with the Lewis group.
They made comments about Lewis’s jewelry.
And then Gwen called them “ho-ass
niggaz.” Oakley had had enough. “When
words are exchanged and you have black
men, they’re not going to back down,”
Sadow says. “That’s your manhood; you
have to respond.” Lewis finally pulled
Oakley away. They walked down the
street to the limo and, moments later, the
second confrontation erupted. The irony
was, Oakley and Sweeting were standing
up for Lewis; they were trying to protect
their famous friend.
The consensus from the defense
lawyers is that Lewis did participate in
the fight. “He made it sound like he
was doing commentary from the press
box when he was testifying,” says
Wolfe. “But he had to have been involved, pushing people off and trying to break it up.” Samuel is the dissenting
voice. He says it was difficult at first to
believe that Lewis stood still while his
friends were being attacked. “Now, I
don’t think Ray was such close friends
with Sweeting and Oakley,” says
Samuel. “They didn’t mean that much
to him. So his attitude was, ‘Fuck you,
I’m not fighting.'”
And the stabbings? Stafford and King
were ready-made scapegoats for the
defense; more witnesses seemed to attach
knives to them than to the actual defendants.
“In essence, the jury connected
with the evidence concerning Kwame
King and Carlos Stafford,” says Samuel.
“Witnesses said these guys had knives
and the jury wondered: Why aren’t they
on trial? How would the case have gone
if there’d been five defendants at that
table rather than three? Someone would
have been convicted.”
The crowning touch in the theory was
the final eyewitness called to the stand,
the only witness called by the defense, a
professional bodyguard named Keven
Brown. He stopped his car so close to the
action just as the fight was breaking out
that his gold Honda can be seen parked
in nearly all the crime scene photos.
Brown said that he jumped out of his car
in the middle of the fray and pushed an
attacker off the downed body of Jacinth
Baker. The assailant got up and Brown
clearly heard him declare, “I stabbed
him.” Brown also testified that he was 90
percent sure the man he pushed off the
body was Stafford.
Wolfe hints that he thinks one person
was “going around” with a knife. Was it
Carlos Stafford? While Keven Brown
said he was almost sure Baker’s assailant
was Stafford, he was even more certain
that the man wore braids. There was just
one person in the Lewis party that night
with braids: Joseph Sweeting.
For most of the trial, Sweeting sat
expressionless at the defense table, so
small and slight that he seemed hidden
behind a computer monitor on the
defense table. He was the invisible man,
the one who seemed to never be mentioned
from the witness stand. Yet, it was
Sweeting who bought three knives. One
was a Gerber Chameleon II intended for
gutting animals. It was 7.14 inches long
with a serrated blade. Between the blade
and the handle was a large O-ring to
place the index finger for leverage and control. The other two knives were smaller, keychain versions of the Chameleon II. Lewis testified that in the limo after the stop at the Sports Authority, someone had pitched him the Chameleon II. “Man, are you guys trippin’ with those knives?” Lewis asked. Then he said he pitched it back to Sweeting. And it was Sweeting who dropped the three empty knife packages on the ground as they exited the limo to go to the Cobalt.
There always was the possibility that Sweeting was going to admit to having a knife and even stabbing someone, pleading self-defense. But which knife? It was Harvey’s position that Oakley had the little knife. That’s why Harvey spent considerable time on cross-examination with the medical examiner driving home a single point: Because of the unique configuration of the smaller knife’s blade and the size of the wounds, it was quite unlikely it caused the wounds to either Jacinth Baker or Richard Lollar.
It had to be the Chameleon II. It had to be Joseph Sweeting.
In his closing argument, Sadow said, “Whatever Joseph Sweeting’s conduct was that night, it was justified.” For Sadow, the choice was always simple: His job was to defend his client to the best of his abilities—not to search for the Truth. Sweeting would admit the stabbings and go with self-defense only if he had to. Until that point, Sadow would concede nothing. The prosecution would have to prove everything; that was their mandate and their duty under the law. “Since the age of 11, I’ve wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer,” he says. “I knew if I didn’t go with my gut, I’d better get out of the business. And nobody could have walked that line except Joseph. He had enough street smarts to know you don’t give in on something unless you have to. John Bergendahl and I had a long conversation with Joseph before the trial. And Bergendahl wanted to go straight self-defense. I wouldn’t do it.”
As he discusses his strategy, Sadow returns to events that night on East Paces Ferry Road. To the 90 seconds of all hell breaking loose. To Stafford and King and Sweeting. “Kwame King had no knife,” Sadow says suddenly. His voice has grown soft. “Carlos kicked Baker. But he didn’t stab him.” How does he know? “Let’s just say I have inside information.”
And then Steve Sadow smiles.