Thursday, October 8, 2009
N.J. judge to rule on alleged bias
SOMERVILLE, N.J. -- The outcome of a 7-year-old manslaughter case against Jayson Williams now rests in the hands of a judge who will decide whether alleged racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct played a part in the retired NBA star's 2004 trial.
At the end of a hearing, state Superior Court Judge Edward M. Coleman told lawyers Thursday he would rule on the case, but he did not specify when.
In closing arguments, Williams' attorney blasted the prosecution as "out of control" and governed by a "win-at-all-costs" mentality that crossed ethical boundaries. The state said the defense did not present any evidence that a racial slur made by a prosecutor's investigator influenced the trial or was part of an overall pattern of racial bias.
Williams was acquitted of aggravated manslaughter in the 2002 shotgun slaying of hired driver Costas "Gus" Christofi at Williams' central New Jersey estate. But the jury convicted him of attempting to cover up the shooting.
He was to be retried on a reckless manslaughter count when Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes disclosed in 2007 that a former captain in his office made a racial slur while the office was investigating the death. After a legal battle, the defense won a state Supreme Court ruling ordering the prosecution to release more details about the investigation.
Meanwhile, Williams' retrial was scheduled for January. He has remained free on bail since the shooting.
In seeking dismissal of the charges, the defense says that former prosecutor Steven Lember, who tried the case, knew about the slur before the trial but willfully chose not to disclose it to the defense.
Defense lawyer Christopher Adams on Thursday cited Barnes' testimony last week that he and Lember were at a meeting in 2003 where then-Capt. William Hunt admitted making the slur. Lember subsequently testified he was not at the meeting, and Hunt testified he couldn't remember if Lember was there.
The defense lawyer told the judge that Barnes should be believed because he admitted that he erred by not thinking the slur would have an effect on the trial.
"He offers up this information at great cost to himself; it'll probably cost him his job," Adams said. "Why on earth would he make it up? He doesn't lay it on Lember. He says, 'The buck stops here.' "
Lember, Adams went on, "doesn't have the integrity of Prosecutor Barnes."
But Deputy Attorney General Steven Farman argued for the prosecution that no documents or witnesses corroborated Barnes' account of the meeting and that Barnes wouldn't have told Lember because he was more concerned with keeping an internal investigation into the slur confidential.
Farman also said the defense failed to offer evidence that Hunt's comment, though not disclosed to Barnes by a subordinate for nearly a year, reflected a climate of racial bias in the office.
"It was a stupid, ignorant, insensitive comment, perhaps made by a person who could be equally characterized," Farman said. "But what you don't have is that there was a pervasive pattern of racism or that racism played any role whatsoever in this case."