Judge in Jayson Williams retrial reviews racial slur material, no ruling yet
NEWARK, N.J. -- The judge overseeing the retrial of former NBA star Jayson Williams ordered prosecutors Thursday to provide all details surrounding a racial slur made by an officer investigating the 2002 shotgun killing of a hired driver.
State Superior Court Judge Edward M. Coleman reviewed the material in his chambers with defense lawyers and prosecutors. He made no immediate ruling on what might be admissible.
Williams' defense team argued that prosecutors are obligated to give them all details about the incident, including the identity of the officer who made the slur and the person who heard the slur and subsequently filed an official complaint.
"We want to know: Who was that officer? What was his role in the investigation?" defense attorney Joseph Hayden said Thursday. "Who did he supervise? Who else was there? How were they impacted? Were they coerced or intimidated by comments like that? This is what we should have known five years ago.
"Was it indicative of an attitude toward Mr. Williams in the investigation, or just of that particular officer?"
Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes alerted the judge about the unspecified slur in a letter Oct. 18, telling him that a "superior officer" was accused of using a racial epithet to describe Williams in a meeting sometime before the 2004 trial. The letter did not name the officer or specify what was said.
The incident was referred to the state Division of Criminal Justice for investigation, which affirmed that the officer made the slur. The still-unnamed officer did not testify at the first trial and has since resigned.
On Thursday, prosecutors denied charges they acted improperly by failing to notify the defense team about the slur or the resulting investigation.
"This individual is not the Hunterdon County equivalent of Mark Fuhrman," Hunterdon County Assistant Prosecutor Bennet Barlyn said, referring to the Los Angeles Police detective who was accused of tampering with evidence in the O.J. Simpson trial. "This individual had no pertinent knowledge about information pertinent to the case."
Williams attended the hearing with his wife, Tanya Young Williams.
Williams, 39, was convicted in April 2004 on four counts stemming from a failed attempt to cover up the shooting of Costas "Gus" Christofi but was acquitted of aggravated manslaughter. He is facing retrial on a reckless manslaughter count after jurors were unable to reach a verdict, voting 8-4 in favor of acquittal.
The retrial was scheduled for early January, but that could be delayed. Williams' attorneys have said in a court filing that they will consider moving to have Williams' earlier convictions overturned.
Witnesses at the first trial said Williams took a 12-gauge shotgun from a case in his house and snapped it closed. The gun fired once and Christofi was struck in the chest. The defense has maintained the shooting was an accident and that Williams panicked afterward.
Williams remains free on bail and has yet to be sentenced on the four cover-up convictions.
A former star at St. John's, Williams played nine seasons in the NBA, including the last seven with the New Jersey Nets, and retired in 2000.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press