Slur by employee focus of questioning

Updated: September 29, 2009, 7:20 PM ET
Associated Press

SOMERVILLE, N.J. -- Conflicting accounts emerged Tuesday about which prosecutors knew what -- and when they knew it -- about a racial slur uttered by an investigator in the manslaughter case against former basketball star Jayson Williams.

The dispute, which played out during a hearing in state Superior Court, goes to the heart of contentions by Williams' defense team that the investigation and prosecution were tainted by racial bias.

Williams, who retired in 2000 after nine seasons in the NBA, was acquitted in 2004 of aggravated manslaughter in the shooting of hired driver Costas "Gus" Christofi at the former player's central New Jersey mansion.

He was convicted on four counts of attempting to cover up the 2002 crime, and a jury deadlocked on a reckless manslaughter count for which Williams faces a retrial scheduled for January.

Tuesday's hearing, and another scheduled for Wednesday, were prompted by Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes' disclosure of the racial epithet in 2007, more than three years after the trial.

Barnes testified Tuesday that he was notified about the slur made by former Capt. William Hunt, who is white, in early 2003 from an employee who had been present at a 2002 meeting with Hunt.

Barnes also testified that former First Assistant Prosecutor Steven Lember was at a meeting in Barnes' office in February 2003 when Hunt described the slur.

Lember prosecuted the first Williams trial but resigned from the office in 2007 over differences with Barnes.

On the witness stand Tuesday afternoon, Lember contradicted his former boss' testimony, stating bluntly, "I wasn't in such a meeting."

Defense attorneys have argued that the slur should have been disclosed before the trial.

Barnes testified Tuesday that although he reacted with "anger and disappointment" when notified of the slur, he chose not to inform the trial judge or the defense team.

"In all candor, I was not thinking about the case at that time," he said. "I saw it as a management issue."

"It was your call and you missed it?" Deputy Attorney General Steven Farman asked Barnes during separate questioning.

"Yes," Barnes replied.

Hunt was the highest-ranking investigator in the prosecutor's office in 2002. He said he used the racial epithet to describe Williams, who is black, in front of colleagues because he was "frustrated" after watching Williams handling a firearm on a video that was to be used as evidence and hearing about his treatment of Christofi before the shooting.

"I realized I shouldn't have said that, and it was wrong," Hunt said Tuesday.

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

Hunt was suspended for five days after the investigation into the slur was completed in 2003. He resigned from the prosecutor's office at the beginning of 2005, saying Tuesday, "it was time."

Williams attended Tuesday's hearing and early in the proceeding confirmed to state Superior Court Judge Edward M. Coleman that he had received a plea offer from the prosecutor's office but had chosen not to accept it. Williams has been free on bail since the shooting.

His wife said she wished he had accepted the plea offer.

"Jayson knows that I am upset that he would not accept an 18 month plea deal, finally representing the appropriate charge and thus accepting responsibility for this accident," Tanya Young Williams, who filed for divorce earlier this year, said in an e-mailed statement.

She said the filing of lawsuits outlining "the pervasive racism within the prosecutor's office achieved what I thought was our goal."

In April, the former New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers player was zapped with a stun gun by police in a New York City hotel suite after resisting attempts by officers to take him to a hospital.

Police had been called to the hotel when a female friend reported Williams was acting suicidal. Officers said Williams appeared drunk and agitated, and empty bottles of prescription drugs were strewn around the hotel suite, along with several suicide notes.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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