Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Unusual Case of Ray Anthony Lewis, Jr.

Super Bowl XLVII has come and gone, and the spotlight no longer shines on Ray Lewis as brightly as it did during the build-up. Now that he has exited at the top of his profession, I feel compelled to revisit the topic that will follow him for the rest of his days like a ravenous dog biting at the heels of his reputation. And I am not talking only about the events of January 31, 2000 -- I am talking about people's perception of him in the wake of those events.

On the night in question, Lewis and two of his friends, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, went to a party at Atlanta's Cobalt Lounge following Super XXXIV. Before they even got inside, a fight broke out between them and several other Cobalt patrons, and within seconds two men named Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar were fatally stabbed. In the instantaneous aftermath, Lewis and his friends piled back into their limo and left the scene. During the ensuing police investigation, some of Baker's blood was found in the vehicle.

Lewis and his friends were charged with murder eleven days after the killing, but the charge against him was soon dropped, and he pled guilty to obstruction of justice (a misdemeanor) after admitting that he originally gave a misleading report to cops. Oakley and Sweeting were tried and acquitted.

To this day many people believe Lewis is a murderer who got away with it, and Lord did they come crawling out of the woodwork when Baltimore reached the Super Bowl. On the one hand I understand where they are coming from because they point to something that appears damning, namely, the fact that the suit Lewis wore that night was never found...But on the other hand I think they come to their belief by ignoring most of the evidence, and I find the intensity of their belief to be very disturbing in a nation where a person is supposed to be presumed innocent.

In the final analysis, I side against the people who are in the "he's a murderer" camp. I side against them not only because Lewis's guilt has not been proven, but because I truly believe he is innocent. Why? Well, here are some facts that rarely get mentioned in the press:

1.  Although scores of people were present when the killing occurred and many of them watched it happen, no one has ever testified that Lewis stabbed either Baker or Lollar. In fact, no one has testified that Lewis even had a knife.

2.  A contemporaneous AP report of the trial of Oakley and Sweeting contained the following sentence, buried deep in its body: "Evidence showed Baker started the brawl by hitting Oakley in the head with a champagne bottle" (emphases mine). This tells us, or should at least suggest to us, that whatever Lewis, Oakley and Sweeting did during the fight was done in self-defense -- just like they said!

3.  The limo driver told authorities he saw Lewis throw a punch (not a stab) during the chaos. Later, while testifying at trial, he clarified that he did not know whether or not the punch landed. In a grotesque example of media malpractice, almost all of the American press referred to this clarification by stating only that the driver "changed his story" -- and neglecting to mention that none of the driver's statements ever incriminated Lewis of murder.

So, the evidence backs up Lewis's (and Oakley's and Sweeting's) claim that they were viciously attacked and reacted by defending themselves as if their lives were in danger. In my opinion, that is the smartest and most responsible thing a person can do in such a situation. There is nothing illegal about carrying knives (in fact, the decision to carry them proved to be wise) but even if it was illegal, there is neither any evidence nor any testimony that Lewis was carrying them.

Plus -- and I can not emphasize this enough -- Lewis has never been associated with or accused of violence at any other point in his life. This simple fact lends even more credence to what he has always contended: That he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and reacted in defense rather than on offense.

Some say: But what about that misleading report he admitted giving and what about the missing suit?

Yes, Lewis has not publicly said everything there is to say about those things, but there is a strong chance he is not free to do so because of the legal settlement he reached. And most importantly, whatever he told authorities was good enough for them, so it ought to be way more than good enough for the rest of us.

Unlike most Americans, I have actually sat through a criminal trial and watched prosecutors in action, and let's just say that they are not necessarily the pure, conscientious characters movies make them out to be. Based on my observations, I am extremely confident that prosecutors would have never dropped the murder charge if they really suspected Lewis was guilty of murder. It is telling that they dropped it so quickly.

There is a special kind of hypocrisy that oozes from some of Ray Lewis's detractors, and it is the kind that gets under my skin the most. It is the arrogant, presumptuous kind of hypocrisy that drives people to say what they would or would not have done if they were in a certain situation -- even though they have never been in that situation and therefore have no clue what they would do in reality. Those who ooze this hypocrisy when talking about Lewis do so in order to cast doubt on his claim of self-defense, by suggesting that they would never have fled the scene and would have definitely handed their clothing over to authorities.

By all accounts, the incident 13 years ago happened in the proverbial blink of an eye. When Lewis and his friends got back in the limo, they had no way of knowing if other people were about to attack, and given what had just happened, they had every reason to fear that more attacks were coming. Fleeing was not an illogical decision at that moment.

Regarding the missing suit, let's assume it had blood on it. Now, put yourself in Lewis's situation. You are in a sudden melee you didn't see coming, and now find that your clothes are spotted with blood because some of the people in that melee were bleeding. Then you find out that those people died, which means you are wearing clothes that you fear will incriminate you in a murder you didn't commit, and you worry about proving your innocence because you just don't know if people charged with crimes are really, really "innocent until proven guilty" in the eyes of a jury. Especially if the person charged is, like you, young and black and tattooed and weighing in at 240 pounds. Disposing of the bloody clothes might be a bad idea in hindsight, but it would not be an illogical one in the moment, especially when you consider the fact that Lewis was just 24 years old at the time.

Contrary to what Ray Lewis's detractors would have everyone believe, he is not blithely going about his life acting like nothing happened on that cold night. Three weeks ago he was asked about the incident on Super Bowl Media Day, and responded by telling the reporter "I live with that every day. You maybe can take a break from it. I don't. I live with it every day of my life and I would rather not talk about it today."

Those are not the words of a man without a moral compass. It is past time for people to stop armchair quarterbacking how they would have dealt with an event they know little about...and stop acting as if they know all the facts...and start reflecting on all the facts and angles they previously overlooked.

The evidence shows that Number 52 is not only innocent, but that he is spending his life carrying a heavy cross of regret all the same. Those who continue to harp about what happened in Atlanta are serving no purpose other than fanning the flames of their oversized egos.

Much thanks to David Daniels for resurfacing some of the facts cited in this post.

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