An Unwashed Stain

               I had intended, this month, to use my small space to discuss a topic outside of famous trials from history. I had planned an essay which explored the craft of writing. Then, I saw that I was scheduled to drop this blog on Super Bowl Sunday. Was a discussion of craft really called for, I wondered, as the nation settled itself into sofas and recliners for hours of beer ads and a costumed J-Lo, with football occasionally interspersed? I decided not. I’ve set that topic aside for another month.

            In January 2000, the St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans before a Super Bowl crowd in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Linebacker Mike Jones tackled Kevin Dyson one yard short of the End Zone as time expired. The fans in Atlanta and those watching on television had witnessed one of the greatest Super Bowl games ever played. Shortly afterwards, however, the conversation turned not to the game but to allegations of murder involving one of the NFL’s premier players, linebacker Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens.

            In the late 90’s, the Buckhead neighborhood had become the place to party in Atlanta. The 1996 Olympics enhanced the city’s reputation. A growing Hip-Hop culture gave the city street-cred. The city relaxed rules for clubs in order to encourage the expansion of nightlife. 100 clubs were estimated to operate within a three block stretch of Buckhead. One of the clubs in January 2000 was the Cobalt Lounge.

            Ray Lewis and a group of friends, including Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, attended a Super Bowl party there following the game. Upon leaving Cobalt around 4:00 AM, they got into an argument with another group. Fueled by rage and alcohol, a fight ensued. Oakley and Sweeting brawled against other men, including Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Lewis, dressed in a cream-colored suit and Stetson, stayed by his rented limo.

            The fight resulted in the stabbing and death of Baker and Lollar. Lewis’ limo carried Oakley and Sweeting among others away from the crime scene. Lewis told the limo’s occupants to keep quiet about what had taken place.  

            Subsequently, Oakley, Sweeting and Lewis were all arrested. The police located blood inside the limo. Authorities never recovered the white suit Lewis wore that night. Prosecutors originally charged Lewis with two counts of murder. He struck a deal, mid-trial, to plead to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice in exchange for his testimony against Oakley and Sweeting. Although he testified that the other two men bought knives in an Atlanta sporting goods store the previous day, he never directly linked them to the murder.

            Trials seek to take a dynamic event and to explain it sequentially. Alcohol and emotion interfere with these retellings. The prosecution’s case, hampered by inconsistencies, could not be salvaged by flipping the celebrity co-defendant. The jury, finding self-defense, acquitted Oakley and Sweeting of murder after three hours of deliberation. Ray Lewis, to this point is the only person convicted of anything in connection with the twin killings.

            Questions persist about how much Lewis knew concerning what transpired in the hours surrounding the deaths, and whether he withheld information which might have led to justice. He has always maintained that he had no part in the crimes. The blood in the limo, the missing suit, and the demands for silence may suggest something different.

            “I’m not trying to end my career like this,” Lewis said, according to another passenger of the limo. He didn’t. Lewis received one year of probation. The NFL fined him $250,000. Lewis played 13 more seasons and was renowned for his defensive leadership. In his NFL Hall of Fame induction speech he referred to 1999-2001 as “some of the darkest moments of his life” and thanked the Ravens coaches and owner for helping him through it.

            About 20 miles north of the NFL Hall of Fame are the graves for Baker and Lollar.

            Last week’s passing of Kobe Bryant has forced us again to consider how fans reconcile the complicated legacy of famous athletes. Like the complex characters of good literature, we struggle to balance athletic greatness, community service and the unwashable stain of a moment. 

            Ray Lewis’ career will always be marked with the phrase, “yes, but”.

Mark Thielman

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