New Jersey law advises that those who commit violent crimes should "generally be rejected" from the program Ray Rice was allowed into for knocking his then-fiancee unconscious.
But the prosecutor who handled the case says he signed off on it after reviewing the circumstances and consulting with Rice's now-wife.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been the target of much of the firestorm since video was released by TMZ Sports showing the punch at an Atlantic City casino. But the case also has raised questions about why the former Baltimore Ravens star was accepted into the pretrial intervention program instead of potentially facing jail.
Rice was initially suspended for two games. But since the video surfaced, he was released by the Ravens and barred indefinitely by the league. In the criminal case, he can avoid prosecution and a criminal record by completing the pretrial intervention program.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence have accused investigators of being too lenient on Rice, and lawmakers have called for a review of the case. Defense attorneys and experts disagree about whether his stardom led to leniency, with some saying Rice's case was given more scrutiny because of his fame.
"A domestic violence scenario with the same fact patterns would be a simple assault case in municipal court," said New Jersey defense attorney James Leonard Jr. "He was actually treated more harshly because he was Ray Rice."
Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain has defended Rice's entry into the diversion program and told The Press of Atlantic City that Rice likely wouldn't have faced jail time if he had gone to trial on third-degree aggravated assault charges.
"Just like it is not just or fair to go easier on somebody because of who they are, neither is it fair or just to go heavier on somebody because of who they are," McClain told the newspaper. "I felt, and still feel, this disposition was appropriate."
McClain declined to be interviewed Thursday by The Associated Press.
Kathy Boyle, who administers the diversion program in Atlantic County, said she also stands by the decision. Boyle said program administrators spoke to Janay Palmer, now Janay Rice, and took her wishes into account.
The law says any defendant charged with a crime is eligible for enrollment in a pretrial intervention program. If accepted, candidates must obey several conditions and, upon completion, have no record of conviction and no mark on their criminal record.
The law goes on to describe four circumstances when "the defendant's application should generally be rejected." The four include an offense that is part of organized crime, part of a continuing criminal business, deliberately violent, or "a breach of the public trust where admission to a PTI program would deprecate the seriousness of defendant's crime."
Erin O'Hanlon, of the Women's Center of Atlantic County, said it's "fairly unusual" to see a violent crime go to pretrial intervention.
Donna D'Andrea, a legal advocate for the women's center, said, "It makes you look at it and (say) 'What was the prosecutor thinking?'"
Attorney John Tumelty said the video is inflammatory, but the prosecutor needs to look at the facts and Rice's past behavior. What the victim wants also can play a large role in determining whether pretrial intervention is used, he said.
Janay Rice has been supportive of her husband and criticized his indefinite suspension by the NFL.
Earlier this year, she indicated through her lawyer that she did not want the case to proceed, but a prosecutor said at the time that she was confident she could have gotten a conviction without the wife's participation.
Carlin reported from Philadelphia.