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Lewis friends acquitted in murder trial

A jury needs less than 5 hours to find Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley not guilty of the stabbing deaths of two men.

©Associated Press

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 13, 2000

ATLANTA -- Two friends and former co-defendants of NFL linebacker Ray Lewis were acquitted of murder and assault charges Monday in the stabbings of two men after a post-Super Bowl party.

The jury deliberated less than five hours before returning the verdicts in the trial of Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley.

The verdicts came hours after Lewis practiced with the Baltimore Ravens for the first time since pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge and testifying for the prosecution in the murder case.

Oakley hugged his attorney, Bruce Harvey, who pumped his fist in exuberance when the verdicts were announced. Sweeting leaned over and put his head on the defense table.

Sweeting, Oakley and Lewis were charged with murder, felony murder and aggravated assault in the Jan. 31 deaths of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, who were stabbed outside the party in Atlanta's Buckhead entertainment district.

Lewis, the NFL's top tackler last season, reached a plea agreement with District Attorney Paul Howard last week. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor obstruction-of-justice charge, testified against Oakley and Sweeting, and will serve a year of probation, but no jail time.

"The irony of this case is the only person convicted in this case was Ray Lewis," Harvey said.

The Ravens' minicamp in Owings Mills, Md., was finished by the time the verdicts came down and Lewis was unavailable for comment. The Ravens said they would have no comment on the acquittals.

Sweeting, a longtime friend of Lewis' from Miami, was charged with Lollar's death. Oakley, an acquaintance of Lewis from Baltimore, was charged with Baker's death.

Both faced life in prison if convicted, but the jury found them innocent on all counts.

"We are deeply, deeply disappointed in the verdict," Howard said. "We thought that we had presented ... substantial evidence that we thought should have resulted in a verdict of guilty for these defendants. That didn't happen."

Families of the victims gathered in the hallway outside the courtroom.

"This is ridiculous," said Faye Lollar, an aunt of one of the victims. "That money sure did buy a lot of people. All that blood. ... I don't believe this."

Baker and Lollar were stabbed during a street fight that erupted around 4 a.m. as the nightclubs in the Buckhead district were closing after the Super Bowl in Atlanta.

Evidence showed Baker started the brawl by hitting Oakley in the head with a champagne bottle. Sweeting tried to help Oakley, but never made it because two large men attacked him and dragged him behind a tree, Lewis testified. Lewis said he saw Sweeting regain his footing and start throwing punches and fighting back.

Lewis said Oakley and another member of Lewis' group, Carlos Stafford, were fighting with Baker. He said Oakley punched Baker four or five times in the chest as Stafford was kicking him.

Lewis was the only witness to put a knife in anyone's hand. He testified that Sweeting, Oakley and another friend, Kwame King, bought knives at a sporting goods store one day before the Super Bowl.

He also told the jury that he demanded an explanation from Sweeting after the fight ended. Sweeting showed him a knife, made punching motions with it and said, "Every time they hit me, I hit them," Lewis testified.

In closing arguments, the district attorney conceded that no witness saw Sweeting or Oakley stab anyone. Instead, Howard insisted there was enough circumstantial evidence to warrant a murder conviction.

Howard, who said the verdict allowed two guilty men to go free, plans to review the case and may bring charges against other people who were in Lewis' limousine. But those will not likely be murder charges.

"We thought we had the principal doers of this act, and that's still the case," Howard said.

Sweeting's attorney, John Bergendahl, told the jury that the real killer was King, whom Bergendahl called "the man in black." He said King, who never has appeared in court, had a large knife and matched the descriptions several witnesses gave.

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