Federal prosecutors have long believed they had Chris Webber cold. From the moment he appeared before a grand jury in August 2000, the government was convinced he had lied about gifts and money from infamous University of Michigan booster Ed Martin. Last September they charged him with perjury. But Martin's death last week at 69, apparently from a pulmonary embolism, will make life difficult should the Feds go ahead and prosecute the former Michigan and current Kings star in July.
Martin's testimony was "vital" to the government's case against Webber, according to Martin's lawyer, Bill Mitchell III. Also, Martin's earlier statements to a grand jury about his dealings with Webber might be inadmissable. Under the Sixth Amendment, Webber must be allowed to confront his accuser, and although a federal evidence code allows for a hearsay exception, the chances are slim that Martin's words will make it to trial. According to a top federal prosecutor not involved in the case, "[The case] has become much more of a paper trail."
Luckily for the government, there is plenty of paper. A beefed-up, 45-page indictment filed on Jan. 17—the original indictment was only 10 pages—lists a series of what prosecutors believe are verifiable transactions between Martin and Webber, including the gift of a stereo, payment for a "medical procedure for a girlfriend," rent on an apartment and work on a car. Webber denied before the grand jury that Martin paid for any of those.
Prosecutors and Webber's attorneys had no comment on how their cases might be affected by the death of Martin, who pleaded guilty, in May 2002, to conspiracy to launder money and was awaiting sentencing. Lately Martin had been sick and had little money, a far cry from the man who once cruised Detroit in a Mercedes, dressed in a fur coat, handing out pastries and shoes to kids, Webber among them. "The only thing of any value he had left was his story," Mitchell said. Now prosecutors will struggle to tell Martin's story without him.