ATLANTA -- While the deal will not be announced until some time next week, Baltimore Ravens tailback Jamal Lewis has reached a tentative plea agreement that will allow him to avoid both a jury trial next month on drug charges and a potentially career-ending prison sentence.
Even with the plea agreement, Lewis faces sanctions, perhaps severe, from the NFL, sources agreed. Lewis has violated the league substance-abuse policy on at least two previous occasions and was suspended without pay for four games in 2001, a season he missed anyway because of a knee injury suffered in training camp. He also could come under the purview of the NFL personal conduct policy.
Under terms of the that policy, a player is subject to review even if he enters "a plea to a lesser offense." Punitive action from the NFL would be at the discretion of the commissioner and can range from a fine, to suspension, to banishment from the league.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Sunday that sources have told him the NFL is expected to act promptly once the plea deal is sealed and Lewis faces a 2-4 game suspension, pending appeals.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The Associated Press Saturday that possible punishment would be based on the player's history and the facts of the case but declined to comment on what sanctions Lewis specifically could face.
Various sources from federal agencies and the NFL, and others with knowledge of the plea agreement, confirmed the deal. However, involved attorneys either did not return phone calls or declined comment and Lewis told the Baltimore Sun on Friday that he had no knowledge of the negotiations.
On Saturday, he told the AP, "My lawyers will call me and let me know what's going on if something is going on. They haven't called me and let me know anything."
Meanwhile, the case won't affect his preparation for the Ravens' game Monday night against Kansas City, Lewis said. "This is what I do. This is my life. This is my career. That pretty much says it all."
An Atlanta native, Lewis is charged with conspiring to distribute cocaine and using a cell phone to plan a drug transaction. The charges are the result of an FBI investigation in the summer of 2000. If convicted, Lewis would have faced a sentence of at least 10 years, which essentially would have ended his NFL career.
The Sun reported the plea agreement in its Saturday editions. The original story concerning negotiations to keep Lewis out of court was published Friday by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Federal authorities confirmed Friday for ESPN.com that talks between prosecutors and Lewis' attorneys had been ongoing for a few weeks.
One source contended a resolution was not imminent, but clearly the discussions were on a faster track than he indicated. Other sources said Lewis likely will serve two to six months in prison, a halfway house or a combination of both.
"There would be no jail time that would interfere with his
career," a source close to the case, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP.
A key element to negotiations, sources said, was not only how much time Lewis might spend in prison but also when it would be served. It is likely, since he has signed off on the plea bargain, his sentence would be served during the NFL offseason.
Because the paperwork will not be filed until next week, when U.S. district judge Orinda Evans convenes a public hearing, the charges to which Lewis agreed are not yet certain. As presiding judge in the case, Evans must approve the plea agreement but is expected to do so.
In February, Lewis pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released on $500,000 bond. His attorneys, the high-profile Atlanta tandem of Don Samuel and Ed Garland, staunchly reiterated their client's innocence. But the specter of a jury trial, scheduled for Nov. 1, and all the possibilities inherent in such a proceeding became the catalyst for the plea agreement. It is not known who initiated the negotiations.
One source said Friday that, as part of any deal, Lewis would "almost beyond doubt" have to provide the prosecution with testimony against his friend Angelo Jackson, who is facing similar charges. It is alleged that Lewis introduced Tomeka Richard to Jackson, a longtime buddy from his neighborhood. Richard was working with the FBI and posing as a drug dealer in a sting operation when she contacted the Ravens tailback in June 2000. Later that summer, Jackson allegedly met with Richard to plan a drug deal.
Richard is a key witness but, if the case proceeds to trial, it is generally agreed the defense would vigorously attempt to impeach her credibility. Even while cooperating with the FBI, court and arrest records indicate, Richard continued to commit other crimes, most of them related to fraud.
Lewis might not be formally sentenced until Jackson's case is resolved.
Ravens coach Brian Billick said Saturday that talk of a plea deal has at least brought the possibility of closure.
"As we move along, the more we can bring specific definition to it, the better it is both for him personally and for this team," Billick told the AP, urging caution in judging Lewis.
"I would caution everybody before you cast judgment -- and I know you will anyway -- that you wait until all of the facts and all the proceedings. And it may take awhile."
Lewis, 25, was a first-round draft choice of the Ravens in 2000. The alleged drug crimes occurred after the draft but before Lewis, who played at Tennessee, signed his first NFL contract.
Except for 2001, Lewis has led the Ravens in rushing every year he's been in the league. In '03, he became only the fifth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.