ATLANTA - The government could have a tough time proving its drug conspiracy case against Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis because of the length of time it took to file charges, legal experts say.
The charges filed Wednesday were within the five-year statute of limitations. But a jury may ask why it took so long when authorities claim to have two taped conversations from June 2000 in which Lewis tried to broker a cocaine deal, say two former federal prosecutors and a law school professor.
"A jury will consider the passage in time in evaluating the government's evidence," said John Rowley, former chief of the narcotics section for the U.S. Attorney's office in Alexandria, Va. "The jury may well refuse to convict on merely one or two conversations without corroborating evidence of some kind." Jim Cohen, director of the clinical law program at Fordham law school in New York, agreed.
"I think time is not the government's friend in this case," Cohen said. "Absent intervening stuff, the jury is going to be very suspicious."
Lewis remained free on bail Friday. The Atlanta native is charged with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine and using a cell phone in violation of federal law. If convicted of conspiracy, Lewis could face 10 years to life in prison.
The wild card in the case could be the tapes. The FBI says an informant contacted Lewis on his cell phone on June 23, 2000, to discuss selling cocaine to the player and his childhood friend, Angelo Jackson. Hours after the call, Lewis and Jackson met with the informant at an Atlanta restaurant.
Both conversations were taped, the FBI says.
At the restaurant, Lewis and Jackson asked the informant how much cocaine the informant was capable of distributing, the FBI alleges. Jackson and the informant met again three weeks later at a gas station and discussed drugs, but no purchase was made and Lewis wasn't at that meeting, an FBI affidavit says.
Jackson had several more conversations with the informant and an undercover FBI agent, but Lewis was not part of those conversations, court papers say.
Kent Alexander, a former U.S. Attorney for Atlanta, said the tapes will tell a lot. He said the credibility of the informant is likely to be called into question by the defense, but at the same time, Lewis' own words may be hard to overcome.
"If there are tapes, the tapes play just as well as they would four years ago," Alexander said. "It's when witnesses have to testify from memory that things get a little sketchier."
The government could argue that it waited so long to charge Lewis because it was conducting a larger investigation that would have been jeopardized if details were released earlier.
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