The Friday before this year’s Super Bowl will mark the 13th anniversary of the death of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker, the two victims of murders committed in the presence of NFL all-star defensive player Ray Lewis. This is Lewis' final season in professional football (his team, the Baltimore Ravens, plays in a playoff game on Sunday). As one of the most recognizable defensive fixtures in NFL history rides into the sunset, there will be a lot of retrospective talk about this notorious blemish on his otherwise gleaming career.
If the court of public opinion seems split on how to interpret Ray Lewis, take that as the first sign that something is not quite right with this story. We accept with distressing ease the notion that a football player could buy his way out of a murder conviction. Much of the confusion surrounding Lewis’s freedom stems from ignorance about his case.
On the night of January 31, 2000, Ray Lewis left an Atlanta nightclub with a group of people. In that group were Joseph Sweeting, 24, and Reginald Oakley, 31. While the group walked over to the limousine that Lewis had rented for the night, those two men became involved in an altercation with another group that had been in the nightclub and had just left; among them were Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker. Lewis stated in court that he did not want to participate in the fight, and pulled his guys to the car. The situation’s temporary truce was then broken, according to his testimony, when the other group passed the limo on the sidewalk and re-ignited the confrontation.
Oakley jumped out of Lewis’s car, and was promptly hit in the head with a champagne bottle. "All hell broke loose at that point,” said Lewis. From his vantage in the car, he could look out and see "a frantic fight. They was really going at it." But according to him and another witness, Lewis himself was not a participant in the fight. One witness from the opposing group said he saw Lewis throw a punch, but later recanted that. The Lewis group corralled into his limo and it pealed away.
Later that day, Atlanta police came and questioned Lewis about the two deaths. He had already told the people in his car to “just keep your mouth shut and don't say nothing.” Sure enough, he lied to the cops. That very day, he was arrested on first degree murder charges, later released on $1 million bail.
Four months later, the murder trial was already two weeks old. It was being prosecuted by Fulton County, GA District Attorney Paul Howard with comic ineptitude, including two Brady violations handed down by the judge. Yet, Ray Lewis made the move to turn witness against his two friends in exchange for the obstruction of justice plea. In effect, he decided to accept a misdemeanor for lying to the cops that he wasn’t there — the crime he did commit — and be let off the hook for two murders he didn’t. According to some, the prosecution’s case was so shoddy to that point that had Lewis not offered testimony (which was as valuable to his friends’ defense as it was to the prosecution because his version of the story corroborated their claims of self-defense) the case may have been thrown out by the judge.
Eventually, both Oakley and Sweeting were acquitted of all charges, though Sweeting did later release a rap song saying that he should have stabbed Ray Lewis, too. (I wish I had a link for that.) To this day, no one has been convicted for the murders of Lollar and Baker.
There are other twists that complicate the story I’ve portrayed, such as the missing suit that Lewis was wearing that night (never found) and the settlement that he reached with the victims’ families years later. But I can safely say that based on what I’ve read, I do not think Ray Lewis killed or even indirectly caused the death of anyone.
The ignorant narrative that I used to believe, that Ray Lewis killed two guys and got his friends to take the fall for it, is certainly incorrect. First of all, there was no fall. Both men were acquitted when the careering D.A., reminiscent of the Duke lacrosse prosecutor, failed to secure a single murder conviction on two deaths. Second, even when Lewis turned state’s witness, his testimony “helped portray the victims as aggressors,” in the words of the other two’s lawyer, thus helping them. Most importantly, for Ray Lewis to have killed either of the men would have required such a vastly different sequence of events than those reported by both the victims’ group and his own that they would all have to be on the take. It’s a very silly thought to construct a scenario where that is possible, and it’s a sillier thought to regard a football player as that far above the law.
Lewis’s vicious on-field persona and his silence on the issue since then have contributed to the assumption that he is guilty. He did lie to the police about being there, but that is quite different from being responsible for two deaths. Unfortunately, that distinction is often ignored by idiotic columnists looking to trash something. In light of what I now know, it’s a wonder that articles like this are allowed past an editor.
NPR takes a good look at the role of the case in his legacy here. Ultimately, it should be allowed to fade in the past. Ray Lewis is a great football player, and we should no longer look at that as a mere counterweight to something for which he was not responsible.