J. Lewis: "I am innocent."

OWINGS MILLS – Minutes before Jamal Lewis darted upfield in a demonstration of his power and speed, the Baltimore Ravens' indicted Pro Bowl runner expressed confidence that he'll be ultimately be acquitted of federal drug conspiracy charges.<br><br> Lewis, 24, has been accused in Atlanta of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine and using a cellular phone in the commission of a drug crime.<br>

"I am innocent," Lewis said Monday prior to participating in a mandatory minicamp. "I'm very confident that my legal team will show I'm innocent."

The reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year has pleaded innocent, remains free on a $500,000 bond and no trial date has been set, although the Ravens are preparing for the possibility that Lewis could stand trial before or during the football season.

Under a scenario that evokes comparisons to Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant contending with sexual assault charges while traveling from the courtroom to the basketball court, the Ravens said they will accommodate for Lewis' legal obligations. Lewis said that he's certain he will be available for kickoff each week. 

"You hope that the process will be respectful of all involved, but we can't control that," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Like we will with the other things that happen during the season, injuries, births and deaths, we will deal with it.

"Whether it is preseason or during the regular season, once we are given that time frame, then we will put the plan in place and adapt as we go."

The reigning AFC North champions are experienced at dealing with high-profile legal issues involving players. 

All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice four years ago after prosecutors dropped two counts of murder. The NFL fined Lewis $250,000 for conduct detrimental to the league prior to the next season when he led Baltimore to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV.

Between Jamal Lewis, cornerback Corey Fuller and outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the trio of Ravens is facing a total of six felony charges in three different states.

Jamal Lewis said he has consulted with Ray Lewis about his situation.

"He called me to let me know everything's going to be all right and to keep my head up," said Lewis, who appeared to be in optimum condition. "He's been there to support me the whole way. He has been through the same situation and has told me to talk to him if I need any help."

The charges stem from FBI allegations that Lewis helped broker a major cocaine deal for childhood friend and co-defendant Angelo "Pero" Jackson during the summer of 2000 just before the former University of Tennessee star signed a six-year, $35.3 million contract.

While rushing for 2,066 yards last season, the second-highest in league history behind Eric Dickerson, Lewis was aware that he was under the scrutiny of an FBI investigation. The team was unaware of his predicament.

"I was hoping that it would go away, hoping that it might disappear," Lewis said. "But being that you're in the spotlight and you are out there seen and noticed, I was sure it was going to come up sooner or later. What better time than now?"

Lewis' prominent lawyers, Ed Garland and Don Samuel, have impugned the credibility of a key female informant for the government whom they have portrayed as a career criminal.

Tomeka Michelle Richard has been identified as the woman that federal agents used to ensnare Lewis in a drug sting stemming from an investigation into drug activity in an Atlanta project. Richard was arrested for fraud while working for the government and has used seven different aliases, three birth dates and multiple Social Security numbers, according to court records. Garland and Samuel didn't return telephone calls.

"I am very confident in my legal team," Lewis said.

Lewis was suspended for four games during the 2001 campaign for his second violation of the NFL substance-abuse policy and was subjected to as many as 10 drug tests per month. 

NFL officials said they are monitoring Lewis' case, as is customary, and wouldn't decide on any potential action until a verdict is rendered. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has wide discretion in these matters.

"I dealt with it," Lewis said. "I haven't had anything come up in the last three years."

Lewis said the charges have motivated him to renew his preparations for next season. Last season, Lewis shattered the single-game mark for rushing yards with 295 against the Cleveland Browns.

"I haven't missed a beat," Lewis said. "Mentally, I've been good. I think it's made me madder, made me work harder, give me some drive when I'm working out. The 2,000-yard season is over. It's in the past. It's a dead issue."

The Ravens begin training camp in Westminster on July 30 and open the regular season Sept. 12 against the Browns. Billick said reserve runners Musa Smith and Chester Taylor are able replacements if Lewis is unavailable.

And, as Lewis noted, a court appearance in Atlanta wouldn't necessarily preclude him from missing much work since it's roughly a two-hour airplane flight away from Baltimore.

If convicted, Lewis could face a mandatory prison term of at least 10 years if the alleged conspiracy is found to involve at least five kilograms of cocaine.

"This does remind me of what happened with Ray, but that made our team even stronger," receiver Travis Taylor said. "Jamal is a tough kid and no matter what happens he's going to pull through it and we back him 100 percent."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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