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Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. cut a misdemeanor deal with Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis “because [Howard] was getting stomped like a narc at a biker rally,” says a co-defendant’s lawyer. Howard’s decision to set aside murder and aggravated assault charges against Lewis this weekend in exchange for a misdemeanor obstruction of an officer plea was an act of desperation, adds Atlanta sole practitioner L. David Wolfe, who is defending Lewis pal Reginald Oakley in the Buckhead murder trial. Other Atlanta lawyers who have been watching the case are split as to whether Howard redeemed himself in a singular act of courage or merely cut his losses. “I don’t think it gets Howard off the hook,” says B. Michael Mears, director of the Multi-County Public Defender’s Office. “He should have waited and properly investigated the case. … You get the facts. You don’t rush to judgment. You don’t allow yourself to be pushed by publicity. “This case has been driven by the media. … There’s not a statute of limitations on murder,” says Mears. “There is no reason to rush other than to play to the media. This is coming back to haunt him. A lot of district attorneys are learning a lot from Howard’s mistakes.” But Mark Van Spix, senior partner with Spix, Krupp & Reece, says that Howard’s act was “very courageous for a prosecutor.” “Paul Howard’s stock went up as far as I’m concerned,” says the defense lawyer, who helped defend Eddie Lawrence in the 1997 murder trial of Atlanta lawyer Fredric M. Tokars. “Some prosecutors don’t have the guts to reassess it and then make a courageous decision like this,” he says. “I think he took the higher ground.” ‘SMART DECISION POLITICALLY’ Defense attorney John R. “Jack” Martin of the Martin Brothers law firm, who is defending Atlanta imam Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin in a murder case, says Howard’s willingness to acknowledge, even tacitly, that the evidence to convict Lewis of murder may have been too weak was “probably a smart decision politically. “This is not the first time that witnesses, when they actually get into court, don’t pan out the way you think they will,” Martin says. “When that happens, a responsible prosecutor does exactly what Paul did. A lot of them wouldn’t have the self-confidence to do it.” Attorneys for Lewis’ co-defendants saw it as a tactical move whose timing surprised them. Wolfe told the court Monday that he learned of the deal from a reporter. “We weren’t privy to this until the media let us know last night,” Wolfe told Fulton County Superior Court Judge Alice D. Bonner. SADOW SURPRISED Atlanta defense attorney Steven H. Sadow, who is defending Joseph Sweeting, says he first learned of the deal about 10:30 p.m. Sunday from a reporter at The Baltimore Sun. On Monday morning, Lewis — who has been sitting at a long defense table with Sweeting, Oakley and the trio’s legion of lawyers — stood with his three lawyers and took his place at a lectern in front of the judge immediately after Bonner convened court. Then he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice in the deaths last January of Richard L. Lollar and Jacinth “Shorty” Baker. The two DeKalb County men were stabbed to death Jan. 31 during a street brawl on a Buckhead street corner hours after the Super Bowl ended and they left their revels at a Buckhead nightclub. Edward T.M. Garland, one of Lewis’ attorneys, told Bonner the plea accounts for Lewis’ order to passengers in his black Lincoln Navigator limousine after the brawl to “keep their mouth shut,” as well as for a less-than-complete statement to investigators. “He fully acknowledges his responsibility for those acts,” Garland said. The misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum of 12 months in prison and a $1,000 fine. But on prosecutors’ recommendation, Bonner sentenced Lewis to 12 months on probation as a first offender. Lewis also agreed to pay back a third of the state’s cost of prosecuting him once those costs are tallied. CHARGES NOT YET DISMISSED Prosecutors have not yet dismissed the felony charges against Lewis. Instead, they set them aside as a dead docket, which leaves open the possibility that they could be reinstated. But Assistant District Attorney Clinton K. Rucker said Monday that the state does not intend to pursue additional charges against Lewis in connection with the Buckhead slayings. Joe D. Whitley, a partner with Alston & Bird and former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, cautions against judging Howard too harshly. “Sometimes you reach for the highest rung on the ladder with the notion you may not make it that far, but you get a result that will be a good result as far as the case is concerned,” Whitley says. “All along, I think they felt Lewis would want to come in and talk and work out a resolution to some lesser charges.” When the athlete chose not to cooperate with police before the trial, that gambit didn’t work, Whitley says. Whitley notes that Howard has clearly bolstered his case against the remaining two defendants. “It gives him some leverage against Sweeting and Oakley that he did not have prior to this,” Whitley says. “I think this was innovative and creative on Paul Howard’s part in light of where he found himself. After witness after witness didn’t perform as advertised, he was in a position to take a bold step. This certainly is a bold step and not a good event for the remaining two defendants.” CO-DEFENDANTS AFFECTED Other lawyers agree that defense attorneys for Sweeting and Oakley — who on Friday were gleefully stymieing the state’s case in a united front with Lewis’s legal team — have been dealt a heavy blow. Mears says the Lewis plea midway through the trial could result in a hung jury. “It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility for this case to go to a jury and the jury would be unable to reach a unanimous verdict on all counts.” But for Lewis, the decision was probably quite simple, says Michael R. Hauptman, who most recently faced off against Howard’s office in the death penalty trial of convicted cop-killer Gregory P. Lawler. All the pro football star had to do, Hauptman says, was weigh the risk of losing his career and spending years in prison against 12 months probation on a misdemeanor that could well be expunged from his record. Says Hauptman: “Ray Lewis tells whatever version of the truth he now has, and goes on making a billion dollars.”

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