MIAMI — Free on bail but facing serious legal charges, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth will get ready for an upcoming NFL season not knowing if he’ll play.
The former University of Tennessee standout surrendered in court Thursday on charges that he was driving drunk when he struck and killed a pedestrian while returning from a night of partying in Miami Beach on March 14. The 28-year-old Stallworth was released by Miami authorities after posting $200,000 bail.
He was expected to fly back to Cleveland on Thursday night. Stallworth intends to resume voluntary workouts with the rebuilding Browns, who must now consider their options and the possibility they will not have the seven-year veteran on their roster next season.
Following a brief hearing Thursday before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy, Stallworth, dressed in a dark suit and holding his mother Donna’s hand, expressed his condolences and offered his prayers to victim Mario Reyes’ family. Stallworth added he has “full confidence and faith” in the legal process.
If convicted of DUI manslaughter, Stallworth faces a maximum of 15 years in prison.
The judge set an April 23 arraignment date for Stallworth to enter a plea. Stallworth, who is allowed to travel between Ohio and Florida and must seek permission to go anywhere else, does not have to be present at that hearing. Stallworth is expected to plead not guilty and a trial date will be set.
The problem for the Browns is the legal case could drag into the 2009 season.
The team did not rush to Stallworth’s defense after the charges were announced Wednesday, releasing a statement saying “we are disappointed he has put himself in this position.” The Browns also said they had been in communication with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
As much as Stallworth’s life is in the hands of the legal system, it is Goodell who could decide his football future.
Stallworth, whose first season with Cleveland was marred by injuries, faces a possible suspension if the league deems he violated its conduct or substance abuse policies.
The penalty could be severe in the NFL deems Stallworth a repeat offender. In 2007 the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that he had been in the league’s substance abuse program before he signed with the New England Patriots as a free agent that year.
After signing with the Patriots, where he played for one season, Stallworth acknowledged his past misstep in an interview with The Associated Press. “All that stuff is in the past,” Stallworth said at the time. “There was a situation a couple years ago. There’s nothing now that’s going on that will affect me preparing for helping this team.”
League spokesman Greg Aiello had no update on Stallworth’s situation and referred to a statement released by the league on Wednesday.
Stallworth also could lose a $4.5 million roster bonus from the Browns that he earned one day before the fatal accident.
It is unclear whether that bonus has been paid. It’s also possible the Browns could recoup all or part of any bonus if it is proven that Stallworth broke any agreements stipulated in his contract. Most NFL contracts include forfeiture language to protect the team in such cases.
Stallworth has six years remaining on a $35 million contract he signed with the Browns before last season.
The Browns will likely wait for Goodell to act before making any decision on Stallworth. However, the somewhat terse tone of their statement Wednesday could indicate new coach Eric Mangini’s lack of patience with players who get into trouble off the field. Owner Randy Lerner hired Mangini to rebuild the Browns, including bringing needed discipline to the team, who were given plenty of freedom by former coach Romeo Crennel.
The Browns also hired a new general manager, George Kokinis, who already has demonstrated a willingness to shake up the team through personnel moves such as the trade of tight end Kellen Winslow, once considered a key piece of the team’s future.
There are other complications caused by the legal case against Stallworth. The Browns have little quality depth at wide receiver, a position once considered a team strength. The team recently released veteran Joe Jurevicius and there have been reports the team was shopping star Braylon Edwards, whose multiple drops cost the team last season.
The Browns last month signed receiver David Patten, a solid 12-year veteran who played most recently for New Orleans. With Stallworth’s status now uncertain, the club could use its No. 5 overall pick in the upcoming draft on a top wide receiver like Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree or Missouri’s Jeremy Maclin.
Stallworth’s attorney, Christopher Lyons, said he would “vigorously defend this case” and that the defense team already has begun its own probe into the March 14 crash that killed the 59-year-old Reyes.
A police affidavit said Stallworth’s blood-alcohol level after he hit Reyes with his Bentley GT was .126, well above Florida’s legal limit of .08. Stallworth had been drinking at a club in the swank Fontainebleau hotel in the hours before he got behind the wheel.
Reyes, a construction crane operator just getting off work, was rushing across the causeway shortly after 7 a.m. to catch a bus home. He was not in the crosswalk when he was struck, and Stallworth told police he flashed his lights and honked his horn in an attempt to warn Reyes.
Stallworth will be prohibited from driving while on bail and not allowed to drink alcohol, according to court documents. He also must observe a midnight to 6 a.m. curfew and submit to random alcohol and drug testing through the NFL’s substance abuse program.