A year ago, Ray Lewis was defending himself in court in the case of a fatal stabbing at a post-Super Bowl party. On Sunday, the Baltimore linebacker will lead the Ravens’ defense in Super Bowl XXXV.
"It's like a fairy tale, or a movie, where there's a bad start and a beautiful ending," Lewis said. "But it's real life."
Winning the Super Bowl on Sunday would be the final notch in an unexpected upward trajectory that began at abysmal depths for Lewis when he was charged with murder in a double homicide outside an Atlanta-area nightclub on Jan. 31. After a plea bargain assured his freedom, Lewis soared this season — earning Defensive Player of the Year honors, getting a vote for league MVP and now playing in the Super Bowl.
But the families of the victims say their lives are still at a standstill as they wait for answers to their questions and for justice to be served.
"[The killers] took the best one of our family," says Cindy Lollar-Owens, who says she is still "hurt, in pain, disgusted and sad" over the stabbing death of her nephew, Richard Lollar, last year.
"We didn't pick out Ray Lewis" as a suspect, she said. "The witnesses did."
No Convictions in Case
A year ago, Lewis was with friends at an upscale Atlanta nightclub following the Super Bowl. A fight broke out outside the club around 3:30 a.m., police said, and Jacinth Baker and Lollar were fatally stabbed. A report from the medical examiner's office indicates as many as 10 people might have jumped the victims during the fight, and no fingerprints were found on a knife at the scene.
Lewis and his entourage left the scene via his limousine which was hit by gunshots as it drove away, authorities said. Lewis maintained from the beginning that he was only trying to break up the fight, although some witnesses testified they saw Lewis punching and kicking the victims.
Lewis later admitted to giving a false statement to police when he said he didn't know the other two accused men, Joseph Sweeting and Reginald Oakley. Midway through the trial last summer, Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice in exchange for testifying against his codefendents Sweeting and Oakley.
Sweeting, a longtime friend of Lewis', and Oakley, an acquaintance of the football player, were acquitted of murder and aggravated assault charges.
A representative for the Fulton County (Ga.) District Attorney's office says the DA's office currently doesn't have any staff actively investigating any new charges in the case but that the case has not been officially closed.
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Following the trial and a $250,000 fine by the NFL — the largest ever levied against a player — Lewis set out to become one of the greatest defensive players in the league.
The Baltimore defense led the NFL with 49 turnovers in the regular season, allowed a record-low 165 points in a 16-game season and is being called one of the best of all time. Lewis was the anchor in that effort, leading the Ravens in tackles for the fifth consecutive year, notching 184 in the regular season.
He's continued that brilliance in the playoffs, adding 26 tackles in three postseason games. The three-time Pro Bowl linebacker recovered a fumble in the AFC Championship game and was part of a sterling defensive effort that held the No. 1 Oakland Raiders' running attack to just 24 total yards. Against Tennessee, his best effort in the playoffs, Lewis amassed 12 tackles and ran an interception back 50 yards for a touchdown.
Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has called Lewis "one of the best to ever play the game."
Victim’s Aunt: ‘We Wanted Justice’
Owens has watched Lewis' progress. She drove from Akron, Ohio, to Atlanta for the trial, then went to Cleveland on Oct. 1 to stage a protest when the Ravens were in town playing the Browns. She and Lollar's grandmother stood outside the stadium with a collage of pictures of Lollar, handing out flyers about the case. She hopes to raise enough money to go to Tampa, too, to stage a protest at Super Bowl XXXV.
"We wanted justice, we wanted to talk to Ray Lewis or the [NFL] commissioner or [Ravens owner] Art Modell," says Owens, who helped raise her nephew. "No one wants to talk to us now."
Ray Lewis, for one, is tired of talking about a case in which he was absolved of the charges against him. At Super Bowl Media Day on Tuesday, he asked reporters to put this story in the past.
"It's a chapter that's closed," he said. "Yeah I got money, yeah I'm black, and yeah I'm blessed, but at the same time let's find the real truth. The real truth is this was never about the two kids dead in the street. It's about Ray Lewis … and that's not right."
He also criticized the city of Atlanta for pursuing him in the case instead of looking for other suspects.
Lewis, who says he's a better player now than ever, shifts his attention to playing in the annual NFL championship he watched a year ago in Atlanta, before going to a nightclub and then going to jail.
And Owens, who says she can't understand how the fatal fight that night could have produced so many witnesses and no convictions, vows to find some answers.
"He's [Lewis] gotten on with his life," she said, "But we haven't gotten over losing Richard."
ABC Radio contributed to this report.