Racial slur used against Williams holds up possible retrial

Updated: May 14, 2008, 6:49 PM ET
Associated Press

HACKENSACK, N.J. -- An appeals court panel grilled a prosecutor Wednesday in Jayson Williams' manslaughter case about why the circumstances surrounding a racial slur used by an investigator shouldn't be divulged to the former NBA star's defense team.

Prosecutors don't dispute that the slur was uttered in 2002 by a senior officer connected to the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office. However, assistant county prosecutor Ben Barlyn argued Wednesday that the unidentified officer, since retired, didn't testify in the first trial and wouldn't testify at Williams' pending retrial on reckless manslaughter.

Barlyn called the comment, which was made during a briefing in 2002, a "grotesque, but isolated incident" that wasn't relevant as evidence and could only be prejudicial at trial.

Appellate Judge Howard H. Kestin, though, suggested that the incident could cast doubt on Williams' retrial even before it gets under way.

"If the defendant can establish that there was no basis for the indictment on this particular charge and it was motivated by some kind of bias, then the defendant will have gone part of the way toward dismissal of the indictment," he said.

Williams was acquitted of aggravated manslaughter in 2004 but convicted on four counts of trying to cover up the 2002 shooting of hired driver Costas Christofi. The jury deadlocked on a reckless manslaughter count.

Though the slur was investigated by the state Division of Criminal Justice in 2003, Hunterdon County prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes did not alert state Superior Court Judge Edward M. Coleman about it until last October.

Prosecutors have denied that they acted improperly by failing to notify the defense team sooner about the slur or the resulting investigation.

Coleman, who presided over the first trial, ruled in December that defense attorneys could look at two documents related to the slur.

Williams' attorneys are seeking possession of those documents and others that can identify the officer who made the slur, the colleague who reported it and possibly others who were in room at the time.

"Who knows where this leads?" defense attorney Joseph Hayden said Wednesday. "We don't know if this is an isolated comment or if it is symptomatic of the attitudes for the entire investigation."

Williams sat in the gallery during the hearing, dressed in a dark blue suit, but didn't speak during the session or with reporters afterward. Both sides remain under a gag order, issued by Coleman, which bars them from discussing the case.

The dispute over the slur caused Williams' retrial, originally scheduled for January, to be pushed back.

On the night of Feb. 13, 2002, Christofi had driven Williams and several of the basketball player's friends to Williams' mansion in Alexandria Township after taking them to a local restaurant. Witnesses testified at trial that while showing off a shotgun in his bedroom, Williams snapped the weapon shut and it fired once, striking Christofi in the chest and killing him.

Witnesses 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, 40, has been free on bail since the shooting. He retired from the NBA in 2000 after nine seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press