Jamal Lewis pleads guilty

OWINGS MILLS - Months after proclaiming his innocence regarding federal drug conspiracy charges, Baltimore Ravens star running back Jamal Lewis pleaded guilty Thursday afternoon in an Atlanta courtroom to a reduced charge of using a cellular phone to facilitate a drug transaction.

Under the terms of the plea bargain, Lewis, 25, avoided the possibility of serving a decade in prison, but will be required to serve four months in a minimum-security prison and two months in a halfway house after football season. He's also required to serve 500 hours of community service after his jail sentence.

"I made a mistake four years ago, when I was 20 years old, that I am paying heavily for," Lewis told reporters outside the courthouse. "I hope the kids who support me will choose their friends wisely. It's a difficult time for me. My family and friends were hurt more."

The reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year will be formally sentenced Jan. 26. The Super Bowl is Feb. 6, which could create a conflict if the Ravens (2-2) advance that far in the postseason.

Lewis missed practice Thursday because of his legal obligations and will return to practice today and play Sunday night against the Washington Redskins.

However, punishment from the NFL management council for a violation of the league's substance-abuse program could be handed down as soon as today with a suspension of two games to four games and a hefty fine the likely outcome. It's more likely to be a two-game suspension.

Lewis has twice violated the NFL drug policy and was suspended for four games without pay in 2001 for his second strike.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said commissioner Paul Tagliabue would review the plea agreement immediately and will announce a decision quickly, possibly as soon as today.

Under a two-game suspension, if Lewis doesn't appeal, which attorney Ed Garland and team officials said he would not, the Ravens' offensive centerpiece would begin his suspension Oct. 24 against the Buffalo Bills and miss an Oct. 31 game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Lewis rushed for a league-high 2,066 yards last season.

"The good thing is that there are less distractions in terms of the ambiguity of when this was going to go down, but he's been through this all last year, all training camp, all the way up to now," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's very, very focused."

The NFL Players' Association is expected to attempt to fight sanctions for conduct that occurred in the summer of 2000. This was after Lewis was drafted with the fifth overall pick, a month before signing a $35 million contract with Baltimore.

However, players are subject to the NFL drug program after signing a document at the annual scouting combine to agree to comply with the league's policies. The NFL is even allowed to put rookies in the drug program depending on their behavior and history of drug tests while in college. Lewis has reportedly had no brushes with the drug program since his 2001 suspension.

During Lewis' absence, Chester Taylor would likely be the starting running back and work in tandem with highly-regarded 2003 third-round draft pick Musa Smith.

Lewis will be required to testify in the Nov. 1 trial of childhood friend and co-defendant Angelo "Pero" Jackson. So, it's truly not over for Lewis, who has to weather impending NFL sanctions, jail time and the stigma of being convicted of a drug crime.

"Jamal is a strong person, so he's going to be all right," cornerback Gary Baxter said. "I know everything is going to work out for him. He has 100 percent from his teammates."

The Ravens offered their support to Lewis, and senior vice president of public and community relations Kevin Byrne accompanied him to Atlanta.

"Just to be a brother," linebacker Ray Lewis said when asked about helping his embattled teammate. "Don't let everybody get confused about what he's going through. All you can do is put it in the hands of God."

Lewis was indicted in February on charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine, pleaded not guilty and was freed on $500,000 bond. He was indicted again in August with an additional charge of attempted cocaine possession.

"A 20-year-old boy can make stupid mistakes, and that's what happened," Garland said. "He had no motivation. He had ample money coming in. Jamal made the decision he wanted to move on with his life."

Lewis' legal team repeatedly said that government informant Tomeka Richard, who has multiple aliases and an extensive criminal record, entrapped their client.

"This was justice, not celebrity justice," Garland said. "A celebrity receives harsher treatment than the ordinary person."
Now, Lewis and the Ravens are hoping to move on from this legal turmoil.

"Jamal made a mistake when he was 20, over four years ago," team president Dick Cass said in a statement. "He admitted today that he introduced two individuals for the purpose of facilitating a drug transaction. Contrary to some media reports, Jamal did not - and did not attempt to - buy, sell or possess drugs. He had no financial stake in any drug transaction.

"We in the Ravens organization have the advantage of knowing Jamal. The Jamal we all know would not make this mistake today. We will continue to support and believe in him. He has admitted his mistake and is prepared to move on. We are prepared to move on with him. We hope that he will be part of our organization for years to come."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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