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Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr.’s public drubbing in the Ray Lewis case has handed his political opponents a weapon, but observers say Howard will emerge unscathed at the polls. Howard, who is up for re-election this year, made a calculated gamble when he prosecuted Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis for murder. With the lights, cameras and microphones of the national media trained on him, Howard had the chance to put away a celebrity. The gamble backfired. Instead of capturing his moment of triumph, the media captured Howard trying to patch a case riddled with unreliable witnesses and evidence open to interpretation. He granted Lewis a last-minute misdemeanor deal. Lewis’ co-defendants Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley won acquittals. Within hours of the verdict Monday, some political observers wondered if Howard’s career was on the ropes. But Howard will move past the embarrassment, suggests Micheal W. Giles, a political science professor at Emory University. Though Howard’s political opponents will surely bludgeon him with the case, Giles says, voters have a hard time blaming a trial’s outcome on the prosecutor. With a little savvy, Giles says, Howard might even score some points. “The spin on this is ‘Hey, I had the courage to go after a celebrity, regardless of the outcome,’” he says. KILLINGS DREW NATIONAL ATTENTION The Jan. 31 stabbing deaths of Jacinth “Shorty” Baker and Richard L. Lollar on the street outside Buckhead’s Cobalt Club caught national attention. Two men were dead in Atlanta’s entertainment district during what should have been a tourism showcase, Super Bowl night. And at first it appeared that a sports celebrity was involved. Former Cobb County District Attorney George “Buddy” Darden, a partner with Long, Aldridge & Norman, says the circumstances of the case, the media attention and the public outcry surely put Howard under tremendous pressure to arrest and indict someone quickly. Then when the case got under way, he says, Howard caught grief for moving too fast. “I’m somewhat sympathetic to Paul Howard and to his situation,” he says. “It becomes a very lonely experience for a DA when a case goes south on you.” REVERSAL COST DARDEN Darden lost a bid for re-election in 1976 when a political opponent made an issue out of a murder conviction later tossed out by a federal judge. Darden had convicted seven people of murdering Rosina and Warren Matthews in a 1971 home invasion. No matter how efficient the office might be in all the thousands of cases it handles all year, Darden says, one case may stick in the minds of voters. “It’s sometimes that one high-profile case that gets you in trouble,” he says. The case has certainly increased Howard’s recognition among voters, says Michael B. Binford, political science professor at Georgia State University. Binford says that although the acquittals will hurt Howard’s reputation, they’re not likely to cost him the election. “Some people will remember, but I don’t think it will hurt him too badly,” he says. REPUBLICAN CHALLENGERS Though he can coast unopposed through the Democratic primary this summer, Howard will face a Republican challenge in the fall, either from sole practitioner John M. Turner Jr., a former prosecutor in Fulton; or Page A. Pate of Penn & Pate. Pate says the trial loss will be an issue and that it’s an example of what’s wrong in Howard’s office. “I think a lot of people are tired of the incompetence and general mismanagement over there in that office,” he says. Howard indicted too quickly, Pate says. He also failed to impeach witnesses using the statements the state collected before trial. And the public watched as Howard made the errors, he says. “People will remember this come November,” he says. Howard did not grant a request for an interview about the upcoming election. Turner did not return phone messages seeking comment. But Giles says that Howard did what was right in the case, politically speaking. He took on a difficult, high-profile case. The DA could have decided not to take Lewis on, Giles said, but that might have been a bigger political mistake. “Where’s the political capital in that?” he says. “He did what he should have done.” IT’S ALL RELATIVE Giles added that other local races feature behavior that disgusts voters far more than Howard’s courtroom defeat. For example, in an ongoing federal investigation, Fulton County Commissioner Michael Hightower and a commission staff member pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, he says. “I think Howard has benefited by the other news stories that are in play right now surrounding other elected officials,” he says. Those scandals “push [Howard's] performance at trial down the salience and priority ladder,” he says. Darden says Howard can influence how voters perceive the case by November. The important thing, Darden says, is to remind the public that he fought hard, and that he thought he had good reason to do so. “It all depends on how he addresses it and answers the questions the public might have,” he says. Though the next couple of months may be uncomfortable, Darden says, Howard might still find himself in office this time next year. “I don’t think his mistake is fatal in any sense of the word,” he says. “I think he can survive.”

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