February 26, 2004 - The Associated Press

Jamal Lewis Pleads Innocent to Drug Charges

By Mark Niesse, Associated Press Writer

ATLANTA (AP) -- Star NFL running back Jamal Lewis pleaded innocent Thursday to federal drug charges that he tried to help a childhood friend buy cocaine in the summer of 2000.

"I just want to say it's extremely important to me that my family, my friends, my fans and the Ravens organization know that I am innocent and I thank everyone for their continued support," Lewis said after his hearing at the U.S. District Courthouse.

The Baltimore football player, an Atlanta native, was released on $500,000 bond on charges that he conspired to possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine, during which he used a cell phone in violation of federal law.

Lewis didn't speak during the 15-minute hearing, other than answering "yes" when asked by the judge and the U.S. attorney if he understood his rights and his plea.

U.S. Magistrate E. Clayton Scofield III said Lewis can travel nationwide while he awaits trial, but he ordered him to have no contact with co-defendant Angelo Jackson or government witnesses.

If convicted of conspiracy, Lewis could face 10 years to life in prison.

Lewis, wearing a gray business suit, was escorted into the courtroom by U.S. marshals and flanked by four attorneys. Lewis was not handcuffed.

After the hearing, Lewis stood in the rain and thanked supporters while one of his lawyers, Ed Garland, said that the same recorded telephone conversation being used by federal prosecutors to charge Lewis may prove his innocence.

"They may have omitted things that should have been in there," Garland said. "We believe it will show he is innocent."

Lewis had turned himself in to the FBI Thursday morning, when he was arrested and booked.

Lewis was indicted Wednesday on charges of conspiring to possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms of cocaine and using a cell phone in the commission of the first count. If convicted on the conspiracy count, Lewis could face 10 years to life in prison.

Garland said Lewis did not try to help a childhood friend buy cocaine in the summer of 2000. Garland said a cocaine buy wasn't discussed during a restaurant conversation more than three years ago among Lewis, a boyhood friend, and a woman who turned out to be a police informant.

No drugs were ever purchased, according to the indictment.

"This informant is attempting to set up Jamal Lewis to get out of jail," Garland said. "It is odd that this is coming right after he had a very successful season. Sometimes celebrities get targeted because they are in the news."

A statement from the Ravens said Lewis should have a chance to tell his side of the story.

The NFL declined to comment.

The indictment came out of a drug investigation that has led to 30 convictions and helped dismantle a cocaine-trafficking ring in the city, prosecutors said.

In an affidavit, FBI special agent Hoyt Mahaley said that an informant contacted Lewis on his cell phone on June 23, 2000, to discuss selling cocaine to Lewis' friend.

Hours after the call, Lewis and Jackson met with the informant at an Atlanta restaurant, the affidavit said. There, Lewis and Jackson asked the informant how much cocaine the informant was capable of distributing, the affidavit alleges.

Jackson and the informant met again on July 12, 2000, at a gas station in suburban Atlanta, the affidavit said. During the meeting, they discussed drugs, but no purchase was made. Lewis wasn't at the gas station.

A college star at Tennessee, Lewis was the fifth pick overall in the 2000 draft, and signed a six-year, $35.3 million contract with the Ravens that July.

Last year, he became the fifth player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards. His 2,066 yards fell short of Eric Dickerson's record of 2,105 yards in the final game. He was the AP's Offensive Player of the Year.

In November 2001, he was suspended for four games after violating the NFL's substance and alcohol abuse policy for the second time. The league did not disclose the details of the violation, in keeping with its policy.

Lewis is the second Baltimore Ravens player to face serious charges in Atlanta. In 2000, star linebacker Ray Lewis - no relation to Jamal - was charged with murder along with two other men following a fight.

During the trial six months later, Ray Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice. He testified against his two co-defendants, who later were acquitted of all charges.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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