Ravens' J. Lewis unaware of plea negotiations

OWINGS MILLS - If plea-bargain negotiations are indeed afoot between Jamal Lewis' lawyers and federal prosecutors one month before his trial on drug conspiracy charges, it's news to the Baltimore Ravens' star running back.

Federal prosecutors are dangling a deal that would allow Lewis, 25, to serve less than one year in prison, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year faces charges of conspiring to distribute five kilograms of cocaine and using a cellular phone to set up a drug deal.

"This is the first I've heard about it," Lewis said Friday in the Ravens' locker room. "I haven't talked to my lawyers about anything like that, so this is news to me. It might be an untrue statement."
Along with co-defendant Angelo "Pero" Jackson, Lewis has been assigned a Nov. 1 court date, right in the middle of the Ravens' schedule, before U.S. District Judge Orinda Evans.

Negotiations have been ongoing for two weeks, according to the report. Lewis' high-profile attorneys, Ed Garland and Don Samuel, didn't return telephone calls seeking comment.

Lewis has pleaded not guilty, is free on a $500,000 bond and has maintained his innocence in several interviews. If convicted, Lewis could serve a minimum, mandatory sentence of 10 years under federal sentencing guidelines.

To be offered less than a year by prosecutors could also indicate possible doubt in the government's case, according to criminal defense attorneys.

"Many times, the government will look for a plea if they aren't completely confident in their case," said Baltimore lawyer Ron Cherry. "Their job is to win, and a plea is a win. If you're absolutely sure your client is innocent and are sure you can prove that, you're usually better off going to trial. It all depends on the facts of each particular case."

However, a plea bargain could affect Lewis' playing status with the NFL. A plea to a reduced charge could trigger punishment from the league under its substance-abuse policy or personal-conduct policy.

Lewis served a four-game suspension in 2001 for violating the league's substance-abuse policy for the second time. A third strike typically means a mandatory one-year suspension.

Under the personal-conduct policy, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has wide discretionary powers as far as deciding on fines, suspensions or expulsion from the league.

When Lewis was indicted, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league would monitor the case. He added that it was unclear if Lewis' situation would be evaluated under the personal-conduct policy or substance-abuse policy.

In an interview earlier this year, Garland assailed the credibility of key government witness Tomeka Richard. He portrayed her as a paid informant who can't be trusted. Richard has several aliases and social security numbers and continued to commit crimes involving fraud while working for the FBI to build a case against Lewis and Jackson, according to court records.

Federal law enforcement officials allege that Richard called Lewis on June 23, 2000 and discussed the possibility of a drug deal. They also said it was Lewis who introduced Richard, who was wired for sound, to Jackson at a Buckhead, Ga., restaurant.

The timing of the alleged drug conspiracy came a month before Lewis, the fifth overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft out of the University of Tennessee, signed a $35 million contract with the Ravens.

Jackson was arrested July 19, 2000, the night his deal with Richard was arranged to go down. Federal agents arrested him with a loaded handgun under his car seat as he sat outside Richard's apartment.
Initially, it was only Jackson who was indicted under drug conspiracy charges.

Lewis, meanwhile, remained under investigation and was aware of that fact all last season while rushing for 2,066 yards, the second-best single-season in league history. The running back retained Garland and Samuel when he learned about the FBI's interest in him.

The Ravens didn't know about Lewis' legal problems until he was indicted last winter in Atlanta.

Indicted in February along with Jackson, Lewis continues to prepare for Monday night's game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

If Lewis has been affected by the legal turmoil, it isn't showing. A week ago, he rushed for a season-high 186 yards in a 23-9 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I'm focused," Lewis said. "I deal with what I have to deal with and I let my lawyers handle everything else."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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