Just because a man is acquitted of a crime doesn't mean he didn't do it.
Simply put: An acquittal means the prosecutors failed to assemble sufficient evidence and put together a case strong enough to convince a jury -- beyond a reasonable doubt -- that the accused man was guilty.
So I don't know.
We don't know.
We don't know if Ray Lewis was responsible for a double homicide on Jan. 31, 2000, in the early morning hours following a Super Bowl party in Atlanta. We don't know because, although two young men were brutally stabbed to death outside an upscale nightclub, no one has ever confessed to the killings, or been convicted of the crimes, or gone to prison for the murders. We don't know because, in the 13 years since, Lewis has never told us what happened.
Hasn't told the police. Hasn't told the press. Hasn't even told the victims' families.
And he won't.
Not as the former University of Miami linebacker prepares to close out a 17-year, Hall of Fame career in which he established himself as one of the NFL's all-time greatest players. Not with his Baltimore Ravens preparing to play in Sunday's Super Bowl.
Maybe not ever.
So we don't know.
As his final game approaches, we don't know whether to celebrate Lewis' wonderful football life -- has the NFL had a more intense competitor, more inspirational leader, more passionate player? -- or despise him for his involvement in the taking of lives lost in Atlanta.
And, yes, he was involved.
He was there, outside the club, in the melee. He was in the limousine with his two companions as it fled the scene. He knows what happened.
More important: He knows who did what.
We know only the facts.
Some of them, anyway.
We know Lewis and his companions were charged with murder, stemming from the stabbing deaths of two men, ages 24 and 21, during a heated altercation outside a club in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. We know blood from one of the victims was found in Lewis' limo. We know the white suit Lewis was wearing that night was never found.
We also know Lewis lied to police, cut a plea deal and spent time in jail for obstruction of justice. We know he testified in court for the prosecution, though never directly linking his companions to the killings, and the two men eventually were acquitted. We know that he settled lawsuits filed by the victims' families, buying them off with blood money believed to be in excess of $2 million.
We know Lewis has denied killing anyone.
That's pretty much all we know.
And because that's all we know, Lewis leaves behind a complicated legacy.
As football fans, we want to embrace him for all he has done on the field, where he played his way alongside the Cantonian likes of Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Mike Curtis, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary. He has been everything that defines what a middle/inside linebacker in the NFL should be. He has been fun to watch.
But that tragic night in Atlanta makes it difficult.
Even with his well-chronicled jailhouse conversion and unabashed profession of his faith in God -- even in an America where, if you show true remorse and are willing to pursue redemption, almost anything can be forgiven -- it is difficult to get past the wee hours of Jan. 31, 2000.
Because we don't know.
We don't know if Lewis merely was in the wrong place at the worst possible time. We don't know if he was an innocent bystander. We don't know if he or his companions got away with murder.
But he does.
"I got two families hating me for something I didn't have a hand in," Lewis was quoted as saying to Sports Illustrated in 2006, "and the people who killed their children are free."
For many of us, the fact that Lewis knows who killed those two young men and has chosen to remain silent all these years diminishes him as a man, betrays his Christian faith and makes it impossible to share in what should have been his feel-good finale as a football player.
How do we honor a man with no honor?I don't know.
(Ray McNulty writes for Scripps Treasure Coast (Fla.) Newspapers. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)