Monday, August 31, 2009
Williams' attorneys allege misconduct
SOMERVILLE, N.J. -- The prosecutor who tried Jayson Williams for manslaughter more than five years ago could find himself back in court, this time to answer allegations that the former NBA star was the victim of racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct.
State Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman on Monday set a late September date for a hearing that will examine an incident in which a senior investigator for the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office used a racial slur to describe Williams during an office meeting in 2002.
Steven Lember, who prosecuted the 2004 trial in which Williams was convicted on four counts of covering up the fatal shooting of hired driver Costas Christofi, is expected to be subpoenaed to testify at the hearing.
Williams' attorneys are seeking to have the cover-up convictions overturned because of what they claim was a pervasive climate of racial bias at the prosecutor's office, as well as prosecutorial misconduct by Lember.
Lember, who resigned from the prosecutor's office in 2007 and is in private practice, did not return a phone message Monday.
Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor William McGovern argued Monday that the slur or any alleged bias had no effect on the convictions, which were earned solely on the testimony of witnesses who were in the room with Williams at the time of the shooting.
The slur by the investigator, identified by his attorney as former Capt. William Hunt, and a subsequent investigation weren't disclosed to the defense until the fall of 2007, more than three years after the trial.
The state Supreme Court in February ordered prosecutors to turn over all information regarding the slur, including who was present when it was made, but defense attorneys said most people have refused their requests for interviews.
Williams, who was acquitted of aggravated manslaughter and aggravated assault, faces a retrial on a reckless manslaughter count that produced a hung jury at the first trial. Coleman on Monday denied defense attorneys' motion to have the manslaughter count dismissed under double jeopardy; they had argued that a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed double jeopardy to apply in some cases where a jury is deadlocked.
On Monday, defense attorney Christopher Adams told state Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman the defense had "its hands tied behind its back" because it did not know about Hunt's slur. Fellow attorney Joseph Hayden said Williams' defense would have fundamentally changed had his lawyers known about it.
McGovern conceded Monday that Williams' team "was entitled to the information -- it should have been handed over," but argued that it played no role in the jury's findings.
Defense attorneys also said Lember handed over testimony from one firearms expert the night before the expert was scheduled to take the stand; the testimony contradicted other expert evidence offered by the state. At the time, Coleman termed the error unintentional but "negligent" and took the unusual step of allowing the defense to reopen its case to re-question the experts.
McGovern echoed Coleman's original assessment and also noted that Lember chose not to prosecute Williams for a separate incident in which he allegedly shot a pet dog over a bet and pointed the shotgun at a friend.
"That is sound exercise of prosecutorial restraint," McGovern said.
McGovern added Monday that prosecutors will seek to introduce as evidence at the retrial an unedited clip from a VH-1 show in which Williams is seen shooting two shotguns at a skeet shooting range.
Williams, who has been free on bail since the shooting, could face a maximum of 10 years in prison if convicted of the reckless manslaughter count. The four cover-up convictions carry a maximum combined sentence of 13 years, but he would likely face probation to five years if sentenced.
Williams played nine seasons in the NBA with the Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers before retiring in 2000.