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Newz Forum: BASKETBALL: Dispute over evidence derails Williams trial

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posted on Apr, 5 2004 @ 10:00 AM
SOMERVILLE, N.J. (AP) -- Just as the Jayson Williams manslaughter trial was chugging toward deliberations after eight contentious weeks of testimony, it got derailed.

With preparations for closing arguments under way, the prosecution said it discovered photos and notes from its weapons expert that it should have sent to the defense months ago.

Defense lawyers for the retired NBA star learned of this Wednesday night -- hours after resting their case -- and on Thursday charged that the late disclosure hurt Williams' chances of getting a fair trial.

Instead of hearing from prosecution rebuttal witnesses, the jury was sent home and state Superior Court Judge Edward M. Coleman heard arguments and testimony about the evidence.

First Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor Steven C. Lember denied any misconduct. He asserted the mistake was inadvertent and said any handicap to Williams could be cured by allowing the defense to reopen its case and question witnesses about the belated information.

As he adjourned for the weekend, the judge instructed the prosecution and its weapons expert to search their files for anything else to which the defense is entitled.

On Monday, the defense is to announce its desired remedies, which Williams' lawyers said could include an immediate acquittal. The jury is not to return until Tuesday at the earliest.

The defense maintains it was harmed because it did not learn until Wednesday night that the prosecution weapons expert had partially disassembled Williams' shotgun months before a defense expert completely took apart and test-fired the weapon.

The shotgun is a pillar of the defense case, which maintains that the weapon misfired when Williams snapped it shut while showing friends his mansion early Feb. 14, 2002, killing a hired driver.

Observers are divided on whether the judge should intervene, but agreed that late disclosure of evidence is common.

"I have seen it happen many times. Too many times," said a prominent defense lawyer, Alan L. Zegas of Chatham.

Whether the Williams prosecution intentionally withheld the evidence, Zegas said the judge should take action because late production "could well have tainted the right of Jayson Williams to a fair trial."

If inadvertent, the judge could allow defense lawyers to reopen their case so they could get fresh testimony from their weapons experts, Zegas said.

Another observer, defense attorney David M. Schwartz, predicted the judge will find the error did not harm the defense because it would not have affected its strategy or questions.

Rather, the defense is creating a record so it can raise the issue on appeal if Williams is convicted, said Schwartz, who has also been a prosecutor, spending four years as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The dispute involves notes and 25 photographs taken when the prosecution expert, Browning Arms Co. vice president Larry Nelson, examined Williams' 1993 Browning Citori 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun on Feb. 5, 2003. Williams' trial was expected to start soon after, but actually began more than a year later.

Nelson's report had been submitted to the defense in August, but did not explicitly mention he had removed the barrels and wooden stock to view the internal workings, the defense argued.

In addition to being vice president, Nelson is chief engineer and director of legal affairs for Browning, of Mountain Green, Utah.

Williams, 36, is charged with recklessly handling the gun and killing chauffeur Costas "Gus" Christofi, 55. The shooting happened in Williams' bedroom at his Alexandria Township estate.

He faces eight charges, the most serious of which is aggravated manslaughter. Collectively, they carry up to 55 years in prison. The least of the charges carries a penalty of up to 18 months in prison, but would likely result in probation.

Williams had gone with some friends to see a Harlem Globetrotters game in Bethlehem, Pa. Christofi had driven four Globetrotters from the game to a restaurant near the Williams estate for dinner with Williams and most of the group. They then went to the mansion in Alexandria Township.

Williams retired from the New Jersey Nets in 2000 after a decade in the NBA, unable to overcome a broken leg suffered a year earlier in a collision with a teammate. He was suspended from his job as an NBA analyst for NBC after the shooting.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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