One Last Chance Can Jayson Williams turn the tide at his manslaughter trial?

April 25, 2004

As Jayson Williams's trial for manslaughter began to wind down in
New Jersey last week, his wife, Tanya, gave birth to a daughter
they're calling Whizdom. How the former NBA star came up with the
name is hard to say, but it doesn't seem to have been inspired by
his defense team. Consider: During opening arguments in the
trial, one of his attorneys, William R. Martin, promised jurors
that Williams would take the stand and explain what happened in
the early morning hours of Feb. 14, 2002, when a loaded shotgun
Williams was holding went off, killing limo driver Gus Christofi.
That looked like a bold gambit; by testifying, Williams would
subject himself to a grilling from prosecutors about the shooting
and his alleged effort to cover it up, but he also might send a
message that he felt like an innocent man. But then,
inexplicably, Williams's lawyers never called him to testify, a
shift in strategy not likely to impress the jurors.

By keeping Williams off the stand, his lawyers left themselves
little choice but to build their case on the testimony of expert
witnesses--which is a risky proposition, considering that the
prosecution has its own stable of experts. His attorneys also
unsuccessfully argued that the charges should be dismissed
because of prosecutorial misconduct. But in denying that motion,
Judge Edward M. Coleman gave the Williams team a much-needed
break. He ruled that because prosecutor Steven Lember withheld
from Williams's lawyers notes and photographs from a report about
the shotgun made by a representative of its manufacturer, the
defense could recall their expert witnesses to rebut the study.
Williams and his lawyers now have one final chance to convince
the jury that "debris" left in the gun somehow caused it to fire
as Williams snapped the Browning Citori double-barreled 12-gauge
closed. Yet even with this extra opportunity, his experts may
have too much to explain. The jury, after all, has already heard
that the gun was loaded, it was in Williams's hands when it fired
and it was aimed point blank at Christofi. A plea bargain is
unlikely because prosecutors, who may feel they are in a position
of strength, have shown no interest in making a deal. The way
things are going, the question may not be whether Williams goes
to jail but just how long he spends there.

--Lester Munson

COLOR PHOTO: DANIEL HULSHIZER/AP(WILLIAMS TOP) FULL-COURT PRESS Williams has heard damaging evidence during thetrial.