Ray Lewis's legacy: On-the-field heroics v. role in 2000 double murder

As the Broncos and the Ravens gear up to face off this Saturday, trying to extend their seasons at least one more game, one illustrious player faces what is possibly the final game of his career. After this season's playoffs, Ray Lewis says he'll put down the pads for good. He'll never play another NFL game.

As far as football is concerned, it's clear what Lewis's legacy will be. As one of the NFL's most decorated middle linebackers ever, he'll walk into the Hall of Fame -- if not on his first try, then soon after. As a person, though, there will always be an indelible question mark that hangs above his head.

In 2000, Ray Lewis and two companions, Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, were charged with aggravated assault and the murder of Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Lewis ended up pleadinng guilty to obstruction of justice; the more serious charges against him were dropped in exchange for his testimony against Oakley and Sweeting. Although there was circumstantial evidence that Lewis may have been more involved than just as an accessory, his guilt or innocence was never determined. The court of public opinion is not so forgiving.

Granted, Lewis hasn't faced O.J. Simpson-level scrutiny. As a public figure, though, he isn't allowed the same presumed innocence and privacy that an ordinary person enjoys when walking down street. With every thought of "There goes Ray Lewis, Hall of Fame linebacker," there will be a quiet, insidious afterthought of "the guy who got away with murder," because that's our perception of the justice system for celebrities: If you have enough money, you can pay your way out of justice.

And Lewis's case left plenty of room for speculation. There are inconsistencies between statements Lewis made before the trial and what he said in the courtroom, and some of his testimony seems to defy common sense and plausibility (here's CNNs transcription of his testimony). But according to David Wolfe, Reginald Oakley's lawyer, the chance the prosecution had to convict was "as likely as [the frequently inflammatory] John Rocker winning the Anti-Defamation League's lifetime achievement award." Few know what actually happened that night, and no ordinary fan, detractor or journalist can say for sure what Ray Lewis did or didn't do -- or, more importantly, what's in his heart now.

Since then, Lewis has by all accounts been an upstanding citizen. He frequently contributes to charities. He has a reputation for being accessible and patient with both his fans and the media. He has not had any further run-ins with the law. He has been an excellent teammate and an admirable athlete, which requires more character than most are willing to admit.

The vast majority of us don't know Lewis personally. Maybe Lewis is a murderer and a liar. Maybe he's a great person who was caught in a bad circumstance. The truth is rarely so black and white. Is it worth risking dragging an innocent person through the mud just to muddy up a guilty one? Lewis is a Christian; he lives in the face of judgment every day. So don't condemn him, don't forgive him, just pray (or hope, if prayer doesn't do it for you) that justice, karma or whatever you believe in will be done in the end.

More from our Sports archive: "Ray Lewis v. Peyton Manning: High and mighty against quietly confident."

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