Lewis pleads not guilty to federal drug charges

OWINGS MILLS – Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis pleaded not guilty to federal drug conspiracy charges Thursday at his arraignment in U.S. District Court in Atlanta and was freed on bail.<br><br>The Pro Bowl running back was released on a $500,000 bond after being processed by authorities.

Lewis, 24, is charged with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine and of using a cellular phone in the commission of a drug crime. The alleged crimes occurred before the fifth overall pick of the 2000 NFL draft signed a six-year, $35.3 million contract and helped lead Baltimore to a Super Bowl title.

"It's extremely important for my family, my friends, my fans and the Ravens organization to know that I am innocent," said Lewis, who wore a conservative, pinstriped suit and made a brief statement to reporters after the proceedings at the courthouse. "I thank everyone for their continued support."

Under the conditions of his bail, Lewis is free to travel anywhere in the nation after paying 20 percent of the bail ($100,000) assigned by U.S. Magistrate E. Clayton Scofield III. Lewis was ordered to have no further contact with co-defendant Angelo Jackson, a childhood friend, or government witnesses, and may not seek a passport.

Although Lewis' attorneym Ed Garland, said he would seek a June trial date, Lewis may not actually face a trial until next year. That would mean that Lewis would likely be available to play next season after rushing for 2,066 yards last year, 40 shy of surpassing Eric Dickerson's NFL record.

A grand jury indicted the reigning NFL offensive player of the year for allegedly trying to assist Jackson to purchase cocaine in Atlanta during the summer of 2000. No drugs were purchased.

If convicted, Lewis and Jackson could face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison because of the amount of cocaine they are accused of conspiring to try to distribute.

The Ravens are cautiously optimistic about Lewis' prospects in court and have been supportive of their star during this unexpected legal situation. They are extremely confident in Garland, who successfully defended All-Pro Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis in 2000 in a high-profile murder trial in Atlanta.

The murder charges were dropped against Lewis. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice.

The team declined further comment after issuing a statement Wednesday where Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said: "From what we know of the charges, these seem out of character with the Jamal we know."

Lewis' teammates are standing by him.

"Jamal has always been a standup guy," defensive end Jarret Johnson said. "I was shocked to hear about this because he's a great guy. Everybody loves him and he's one of our leaders." 

Garland acknowledged that the NFL player met with a paid informant, a woman, along with Jackson at a Buckhead restaurant in a June, 2000 meeting that was tape-recorded, according to an affidavit.

Garland said that the prosecutors' tapes may help exonerate his client, adding that their meaning is open to interpretation. Garland said the informant was trying to frame Lewis to get out of jail.

"Jamal Lewis says he is completely not guilty," Garland said. "He hasn't been involved in any drug deal. He hadn't reached agreement to be in one. 

"He hasn't made any phone calls to carry out a drug deal. Anybody who says to the contrary is a liar."

The FBI said that Lewis had no further involvement after a telephone call to the informant and the restaurant meeting.

Lewis received a second strike under the league's substance and alcohol abuse policies in 2001 while out with a knee injury. He was suspended for four games without pay. A third strike for a Stage 3 player, according to the league's policies, would trigger an automatic one-year suspension and can be caused by a drug conviction.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is granted wide discretion in legal matters. The league's policies also contain a provision where any drug or alcohol-related incident or a guilty plea, even to a lesser offense, may be counted as a violation of the substance-abuse policy.

The NFL office declined to comment, but said it is monitoring Lewis' case.

Chester Taylor and Musa Smith are listed behind Lewis on the depth chart and combined for four touchdowns and 297 yards last season. 

Lewis shattered the single-game rushing record with 295 yards against the Cleveland Browns last September.

"It's a shame that this happened to Jamal, having his name dragged around," Johnson said. "It's not the Jamal that I know. He's a good person."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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