Williams seeks access to info on slur

TRENTON, N.J. -- Attorneys for Jayson Williams implored New Jersey's Supreme Court on Tuesday to allow them access to information about a racial slur uttered by an investigator in the manslaughter case against the former basketball star.

The court is considering arguments about what effect the slur may or may not have had on the investigation into the shooting of hired driver Costas "Gus" Christofi at Williams' mansion in Feb. 2002.

Williams, who played nine seasons in the NBA for the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers before retiring in 2000, was convicted in 2004 of trying to cover up the shooting but acquitted of aggravated manslaughter. The jury deadlocked on a reckless manslaughter count, and a retrial is pending.

Defense attorneys indicated Tuesday that they could seek to have the original convictions overturned depending on what they find if the court rules they are allowed to investigate the slur incident. State Superior Court Judge Edward M. Coleman previously ruled that defense attorneys could have access to details of the incident, and an appeals court upheld that ruling last year.

Williams, who has been free on bail since the shooting, did not attend Tuesday's session.

Though the slur was made during a briefing at the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office in 2002, prosecutors didn't divulge the incident until 2007.

"We were given it five years too late, but certainly we have the right to take it where it leads," defense attorney Joseph Hayden told the court Tuesday.

Williams' defense team is seeking two reports stemming from the incident as well as the identities of those who were in the room when the slur was made to try and establish whether the comment was isolated or whether it represented more widely held views.

Hunterdon County Assistant Prosecutor Bennett Barlyn argued Tuesday that giving the information to the defense would be "utterly pointless" because the defense is focusing on possible impeachment of witnesses and the officer did not testify at Williams' first trial and won't testify at the retrial.

"This case is not a whodunit or 'How was it done?'" Barlyn added. "The defense has conceded the events in question. The issue is whether the defendant was criminally reckless, and what was his state of mind."

Barlyn called the slur "admittedly reprehensible" but said the officer wasn't calling on others to conspire against Williams.

Justice Barry T. Albin interjected, "We don't know. We know very little. You know a whole lot more than we do and a whole lot more than the defense."

Hayden seized on that theme, accusing the state of "asking us to rely on the kindness of strangers" and characterizing Barlyn's approach as, "'Trust us, we'll tell you who was there, don't investigate it."

During his argument Tuesday, Barlyn said the officer "played a marginal role in the investigation and prosecution of the defendant."

Hayden countered by reading from a police report that said the officer, whom he termed the second-highest ranking officer in the prosecutor's office, was present at the scene within a few hours of the shooting and "assisted in coordination and supervision of members of the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office and New Jersey State Police in conducting the investigation."

The session took an unexpected turn when a justice divulged the last name of the previously unidentified officer.

During oral argument by Barlyn, Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto interrupted and said, "Let's talk about Captain Hunt."

The name of the officer had been kept under seal since the fall of 2007 when Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes reported the incident to Coleman, who presided over Williams' first trial.

But in a sometimes sharp exchange with Barlyn on Tuesday, Rivera-Soto went on to accuse Hunt of "hiding behind a seal."

"It strikes me that if this individual makes a comment which he admits he made, he should stand behind it and he should not be cloaked by any seal whatsoever," Rivera-Soto said.

Attorneys for both sides are under a gag order and forbidden to discuss the case with the media. Hunterdon County Prosecutor J. Patrick Barnes did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment Tuesday.