Friday, October 16, 2009
Williams' manslaughter retrial upheld
SOMERVILLE, N.J. -- A ruling by a New Jersey judge Friday set the stage for a second manslaughter trial for former NBA star Jayson Williams, whose lawyers argued that a racial slur and other misconduct by the prosecutor's office should result in dismissal.
State Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman upheld Williams' convictions for covering up the shooting death of a hired driver and rejected attempts to dismiss a retrial early next year on the manslaughter charge.
Defense attorneys' latest attempts to clear Williams centered on a racial slur an investigator in the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office used to describe the basketball star, who is black. The comment came in the months after the 2002 shooting of Costas "Gus" Christofi at Williams' central New Jersey estate.
The slur by former Capt. William Hunt, who is white, was made at a meeting of investigators but wasn't disclosed to the defense until 2007, when Williams was facing retrial on a reckless manslaughter count that had deadlocked the jury in 2004.
In a strongly worded opinion, Coleman said the defense's claim that knowledge of the slur would have changed their trial strategy "frankly, rings hollow."
"There is no evidence that this racial comment was adopted by anyone else in the room at the time or by anyone else in the prosecutor's office," he said. "There is no evidence that any racial bias affected the investigation. There is nothing to indicate he did not receive a fair trial."
The disclosure of the slur by Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes set in motion a series of court battles that ultimately led to hearings two weeks ago in which current and former members of the prosecutor's office testified about the incident.
Barnes testified that former First Assistant Prosecutor Steven Lember, who prosecuted the first trial, knew about the slur before the trial. But Lember denied that claim, and Hunt's testimony was inconclusive. Coleman found Lember's claim more credible.
"Clearly, Prosecutor Barnes felt he did know, but this was refuted by Mr. Lember and by Capt. Hunt," Coleman said. "Barnes never said if Lember knew the slur was directed at Williams," he added.
Williams, wearing a gray suit, sat expressionless at the defense table as the ruling was read. He and attorneys on both sides are prohibited from speaking publicly about the case under a gag order Coleman imposed.
Most of the facts of the February 2002 shooting are not in dispute. Christofi had driven Williams and several of the basketball player's friends to Williams' Hunterdon County mansion after taking them to a local restaurant.
Witnesses testified that while showing off a shotgun in his bedroom, Williams snapped the weapon shut and it fired one shot that struck Christofi in the chest, killing him.
They also testified that Williams tried to cover up his involvement in the shooting by initially placing the gun in the dead man's hands and instructing those present in the bedroom to lie about the incident.
The defense has maintained the shooting was an accident and that Williams panicked afterward.
Williams' NBA career was cut short by injury in 2000 after nine seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets. He has been free on bail since the shooting and tried to resurrect his career in 2005 when he had a short stint in the minor league Continental Basketball Association.
Williams' retrial is scheduled to begin in January. Coleman has said Williams won't be sentenced on the cover-up convictions until the pending reckless manslaughter count is resolved. The four convictions carry a combined maximum sentence of about 13 years, but Williams could receive as little as probation up to five years.