Prosecutor unsure of timeline on slur

SOMERVILLE, N.J. -- The former county prosecutor who tried Jayson Williams for manslaughter in 2004 asserted Wednesday that he was unsure when he learned that one of his subordinates used a racial slur to describe the former NBA star.

Steven Lember, who was first assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor until 2007, was questioned for a second day by Williams' attorney. The defense team is seeking to show that the investigation was tainted by racial bias and is urging a judge to overturn Williams' cover-up convictions.

The racial epithet was used by former Capt. William Hunt at an office meeting in 2002. Lember said he believed he didn't learn about it until after the trial, but he couldn't be positive.

"The hardest thing for me is figuring out when I actually learned about this racial slur," Lember said. "I can't say with any precision when I learned or even how I learned. I would be purely speculating as to when it became clear in my mind."

Lember's testimony contradicted that of his former boss, current Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes. In testimony Tuesday, Barnes said that Hunt admitted during an early 2003 meeting that he had used the slur and that both Barnes and Lember were present when Hunt made the admission.

Lember denied being at the 2003 meeting.

Their diverging testimony clouds the evidence before state Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman, who must decide whether prosecutors made an error by not disclosing the slur before the trial. Williams' attorneys say they should have been told about it.

Barnes disclosed the slur to Coleman in the fall of 2007, more than three years after the trial. The disclosure delayed the manslaughter retrial, which is now scheduled for January.

At a hearing in August, Assistant Prosecutor William McGovern conceded that the defense should have been notified, but said that it wouldn't have affected the cover-up convictions because those were based on eyewitness testimony.

Lember testified Wednesday that Barnes did tell him to contact the state Division of Criminal Justice to investigate Hunt, but that Barnes gave no specifics about it. The division conducted an investigation and generated an April 2003 report that has not been released publicly. Lember said Barnes did not share the report with him, but Hunt was suspended for five days and eventually resigned.

Prosecutors have said that Hunt played a minor role in the investigation and didn't testify at the first trial, but defense attorneys noted that he was one of the first officers at the scene and later was responsible for transporting evidence and coordinating witnesses.

Williams was acquitted in 2004 of aggravated manslaughter in the death of hired driver Costas Christofi, who was killed by a shotgun blast at Williams' central New Jersey mansion. He was convicted of trying to cover up the crime and faces retrial on a reckless manslaughter count over which the jury deadlocked.

Witnesses to the shooting testified at the first trial that Williams snapped the gun shut and it fired, hitting Christofi in the chest, and that Williams told them to lie to police about what happened.

Williams retired in 2000 after nine seasons in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets. He has been free on bail since the shooting.

He 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 the convictions stand.