Billick defends J. Lewis' reputation

OWINGS MILLS – In the wake of Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis' arrest on federal drug conspiracy charges in Atlanta last week, Ravens coach Brian Billick defended his star runner's reputation Tuesday and predicted that Lewis will ultimately prevail in the court system.

Lewis, the reigning NFL offensive player of the year who gained the second-most rushing yards in league history last season with 2,066 yards, has pleaded not guilty to helping to arrange a major cocaine deal in the summer of 2000 for a childhood friend in his hometown. 

Lewis, 24, has been charged with conspiring to possess with intent to distribute at least five kilograms of cocaine and using a cellular telephone in the commission of a drug crime. If convicted of the first count, he could face a mandatory prison term of at least 10 years and a possible life sentence. 

The crimes allegedly occurred weeks before Lewis signed a six-year, $35.3 million deal to launch his NFL career in Baltimore.

"We're very proud of the human being that Jamal Lewis is today," Billick said. "We have a great deal of faith in Jamal. We have a great deal of faith in the process. That comes from what information we know.

"I have no doubt that he will fight his way out of this difficulty. I'm not sure what others are hoping to accomplish from this, quite frankly, given the track record he's had for the last few years."

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said that Lewis' legal situation will not cause the team to craft contingency plans in case the Pro Bowl back isn't available.

"We stand by Jamal," Newsome said. "Nobody knows Jamal as well as we do, but, right now, that hasn't altered our off-season plans at all."

Lewis turned himself in to the FBI in Atlanta last week one day after authorities announced that a federal grand jury had indicted him in a case that stems from a long-running investigation into what officials described as a multimillion-dollar cocaine ring.

Authorities said the probe has resulted in more than 30 convictions in Georgia's federal courts that dismantled a cocaine trafficking ring in the Bowens Homes public housing complex of northwest Atlanta.

Lewis is free on a $500,000 bond and is allowed to travel anywhere in the country. He was ordered not to obtain a passport or leave the country, or have any contact with co-defendant Alonzo "Pero" Jackson, a childhood friend, and witnesses in the case.

When Billick was asked whether he believed the brawny runner would be lining up in the Ravens' backfield next season, he said: "We're confident that he is."

Lewis declared his innocence last week during an initial appearance at U.S. District Court in Atlanta. He has been accused of trying to help Jackson purchase up to 50 kilograms of cocaine. Lewis has maintained a low profile since the arrest.

No trial date has been assigned, although Lewis' attorney, Ed Garland, said he would attempt to have the case heard before training camp. However, it might not be heard until next year depending upon whether Garland waives Lewis' right to a speedy trial or the court's docket.

Garland successfully defended Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis in a double-murder trial in 2000 in Atlanta where all charges were dropped except for a guilty plea on a misdemeanor obstruction of justice. 

Garland said Lewis is being framed by a paid female informant who hopes to get herself out of trouble with the government.

Billick expressed confidence in reserve backs Chester Taylor and Musa Smith, who combined for 297 yards and four touchdowns last season.

The team is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We're going to do what we think is in the best interests of the team as we go forward," Billick said. "We're certainly cognizant of the situation, but it's not driving us in any sense."

Lewis received a second strike under the league's substance and alcohol abuse policy 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 NFL policy, would trigger an automatic, one-year suspension and can be caused by a drug conviction, failed test, missed test, or any association with drugs.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is granted wide discretion in legal matters involving players. The league's policy contains a provision where any drug or alcohol-related incident or guilty plea, even to a lesser offense, may be counted as a violation of the substance-abuse policy. A heavy fine is another possible punishment.

The NFL has declined to comment, but is monitoring Lewis' case.

"Jamal has been a viable part of that program, tested to a degree that very few players in their lives have to be monitored," Billick said. "He has proven over a period of time that he is a valuable, functioning member of this team, of this city and of the NFL."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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