NEWARK, N.J. (AP)—The next few days may feel like alumni week for the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office, minus the good vibes and fond reminiscences.
In the latest twist in the long-running manslaughter case against former NBA star Jayson Williams, current and former employees, starting with county prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes, are expected to be grilled about racial bias in the investigation of the killing of hired driver Costas "Gus" Christofi at Williams' central New Jersey mansion in 2002.
Among those scheduled to testify are: Steven Lember, who tried Williams in 2004 and later resigned from the prosecutor's office; Katharine Errickson, who was to have headed the prosecution at Williams' upcoming retrial for reckless manslaughter but was fired in early 2008; and William Hunt, the former investigator whose use of a racial slur to describe Williams, who is black, precipitated the chain of events that led to this week's hearings.
Williams, who played nine seasons in the NBA with the
Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets, was acquitted of aggravated manslaughter in 2004 but convicted on four counts of covering up the crime. Several witnesses testified that after Williams handled a shotgun that fired and hit Christofi in the chest, he told them to lie to police and tampered with evidence.
The jury deadlocked on a reckless manslaughter count, and a retrial is tentatively scheduled for January. Williams has been free on bail since the shooting.
Defense attorneys will try to use this week's hearings to place the entire case against Williams into question, including the convictions and retrial. They have leveled charges of prosecutorial misconduct at Lember for, among other things, waiting until more than three years after the trial to disclose the slur incident.
Prosecutors have argued that the slur or any alleged bias had no effect on the convictions since the jury reached its verdicts on the basis of testimony by witnesses to the shooting.
Neither Barnes nor Lember, who is in private practice, returned phone messages seeking comment Monday. Williams and attorneys involved in the case are prohibited from speaking to the media under a gag order imposed by state Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman.
At the very least, the hearings will focus more scrutiny on a prosecutor's office that already faces three lawsuits by current and former employees - including Errickson - including one that alleges a hostile work environment and "racially prejudicial atmosphere."
The sight of prosecutors being questioned on the witness stand by defense attorneys is unusual, said Donald Robinson, former president of the Association of the Federal Bar of New Jersey.
"Within my experience, when there are charges of prosecutorial misconduct, there's an internal investigation and it usually ends there," Robinson said. "But to have an open court hearing on what a prosecutor did or didn't do is a healthy thing because they should have to defend themselves when they're accused."
New Jersey's Supreme Court in February ordered prosecutors to turn over all information regarding Hunt's slur, including who was present when it was made, but defense attorneys said most employees of the prosecutor's office refused their requests to be interviewed.
Coleman ruled last month that the defense could have subpoena power to compel them to testify.