When Ray Lewis walks out of an Atlanta courthouse for the last time this week, he will slip right back into the heart of the Ravens' defense.

No prison time, no NFL suspension, no waiting.

Exoneration from double-murder charges came in the form of a plea bargain. Clearance by the NFL came despite a misdemeanor of obstruction of justice.

Could the Ravens have hoped for anything better?

"Obviously, we're very pleased with the sequence of events this morning," coach Brian Billick said yesterday, facing what was probably the largest media contingent ever to attend a Ravens' passing camp.

Within hours of having charges dropped in exchange for his testimony, Lewis, a three-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker, learned he could be back in the Ravens' huddle as soon as next week's veterans minicamp.

Reaction at the team's Owings Mills practice facility was equal parts relief and vindication, with a smidgen of restrained joy mixed in.

"Some vindication, some relief," team owner Art Modell said of his feelings. "More happiness for Ray, his family, his teammates, his coaches - everybody who knows Ray Lewis as we do know him.

"I never had any qualms about his innocence, about the false statements. I think he was terrified of the police, scared. Who knows what happened?"

Lewis was able to clear his name and keep his pro football career alive in a frightful off-season when the NFL was forced to broaden its policy against violent crime.

The re-named personal conduct policy now covers money laundering, racketeering and obstruction of justice, crimes that were added during league meetings in Baltimore last month.

While two other NFL players charged with misdemeanors this off-season were suspended, Lewis will get off with a pending fine, at worst, from commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The difference between Lewis' case and that of Jumbo Elliott and Matt O'Dwyer was the seriousness of the charges, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.

Elliott and Jason Fabini of the New York Jets, and O'Dwyer of the Cincinnati Bengals were involved in a bar brawl after Elliott urinated in the sink in a women's bathroom and punched two patrons, a woman and male volunteer firefighter. It took 31 police officers to subdue the three players.

Elliott was charged with misdemeanor assault, harassment and public lewdness, then pled guilty to harassment and disorderly conduct. O'Dwyer faced charges of felony assault, harassment and criminal mischief for kicking out the window of a patrol car and spraying glass particles into the faces of two officers. He pleaded guilty to assault and disorderly conduct. The NFL suspended both players for two games.

Fabini was charged with disorderly conduct, and accepted deferred adjudication with a fine from both the court and the NFL.

"Ray Lewis is still subject to a fine, but he will not be suspended," Aiello said.

Still one other player, Denard Walker of the Tennessee Titans, received a two-game suspension after pleading guilty to assault on the mother of his son.

Lewis, cleared of murder and assault charges, was guilty of misleading statements to law enforcement officers.

Jeff Diamond, president of the Titans, declined to comment on Lewis' case. Mike Brown, president of the Bengals, said, "I don't know if I'd want our guy treated differently than the others, but it's his Tagliabue's call.