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Days after the public release of a video showing the football star Ray Rice assaulting the woman who is now his wife, a senior Justice Department official signaled that additional legal charges against the running back could be in the offing.
"This is an ongoing case, and prosecutors are making real-time decisions" about the Rice matter, said Associate Attorney General Tony West, the third-highest ranking Justice official, in an interview from Washington late Tuesday. Because of that, West said, "I obviously have to be careful about what I say." West later added, through a spokesman, that he was referring to state prosecutors, not federal ones.
Rice's lawyer, Michael Diamondstein, did not initially respond to a request for comment.
Video shot in February that surfaced in recent days revealed that Rice, a prized running back for the Baltimore Ravens, punched Janay Palmer, then his fiancee, in the face during a squabble in the elevator of Revel, an Atlantic City, New Jersey casino. After Palmer appeared to pass out from the blow, Rice was depicted on the video dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator car.
Months after the incident, he was indicted by an Atlantic County jury on one count of aggravated assault; he pleaded not guilty. He then agreed to enter a pre-trial intervention program upon the completion of which the criminal charges would be dropped. Rice initially received a two-game suspension by the NFL that was modified to an indefinite ban since the release of the tape. The Ravens also severed ties with him.
Lawyers familiar with New Jersey criminal assault cases said that while there would be hurdles to bringing fresh charges against Rice—including that Palmer, now Rice's wife, had declined to pursue a case—a revived case was possible.
"I could certainly envision it," said Allan Marain, a criminal defense lawyer in New Brunswick, N.J., who handled numerous assault cases as a public defender. "There is a legal doctrine called 'law of the case,' which stands for the proposition that once a judge on a case has made a decision, that decision should hold throughout the entire case," he said, but "judges revisit issues previously made in a given case, really, every day of the week."
"Exceptions can be made," Marain added, "and often are."
A spokesman for James McClain, the acting prosecutor in Atlantic City who brought the original assault case against Rice, declined to comment.
In the interview with CNBC late Tuesday, West, who plans to leave the Justice Department Sept. 15 after a five-year tenure, declined to rule out the possibility of new criminal charges. "I won't comment because I know when I was a prosecutor the worst thing in the world is for some high-ranking official to say something about my case," he said, again raising questions as to whether additional charges were in the works.
Regardless of the legal outcome here, West said, the disturbing video footage of the Rice assault serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting women from domestic violence, something he prioritized during his years at Justice, where he advocated for abused Native American women, among other groups.
"This issue is something that merits a public discussion," said West, noting that the vast majority of domestic abuse is not documented on video. "It merits public engagement of men as well as women that we cannot tolerate violence against women in any form, and so I think to the extent that we're having that conversation, it's a much-needed conversation."
—By CNBC's Kate Kelly.