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Risks dog Jayson Williams' testimony

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

Jayson Williams
Jayson Williams

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(Court TV) -- In his opening statement, Jayson Williams' lawyer left little doubt about which witness the defense considers most important in the former NBA star's manslaughter trial.

"Jayson Williams will tell you what happened that night. Jayson Williams will tell you how this horrific, totally unforeseeable accident occurred," attorney Billy Martin told the jury that will decide whether Williams committed a crime when he killed a chauffeur while toying with a gun.

The promise that the one-time New Jersey Net would take the witness stand in his own defense was not entirely surprising. To win an acquittal on manslaughter charges, Williams must convince jurors that he was not acting recklessly when he shot Costas "Gus" Christofi at his mansion on Valentine's Day 2002.

With friends and other eyewitnesses having turned state's evidence against him, only Williams can explain his actions and his mindset.

Additionally, the sports millionaire gave two television interviews in which he tearfully recounted killing Christofi. At least three jurors admitted they knew of these interviews. If Williams does not testify, they might wonder why he was willing to talk to Barbara Walters, but not to them.

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Still, testifying on one's own behalf poses hazards to any defendant and is a special risk to Williams.

The constitutional protection against self-incrimination prohibits criminal defendants from ever being forced to testify, and only a small percentage choose to submit to questions from their own attorneys and the inevitable tough cross-examination by prosecutors. In cases where they do opt to testify, the decision is often made late in a trial based on the progress of the case.

Taking the stand is especially dicey for Williams because his testimony is likely to free prosecutors to tell the jury about very damning evidence, including the alleged shooting of his dog, that would otherwise be out of bounds.

"Depending on what he says on the stand, he could open the door for the prosecutor to explore areas previously ruled inadmissible. The defense is going to have to do a very good job preparing him," said Robert Honecker, first assistant prosecutor in Monmouth County.

Before the trial began, Judge Edward Coleman ruled that prosecutors could not tell the jury about two previous shooting incidents allegedly involving Williams.

In 1994, a handgun Williams was holding in the parking lot of the Meadowlands arena went off, striking the hubcap of a vehicle. Williams completed a diversionary program of community service and charges were not pursued.

Prosecutors say the second incident occurred at Williams' mansion just six months before Christofi's shooting. Williams allegedly bet houseguest and former pro basketball player Dwayne Schintzius $100 that he could not drag Williams' Rottweiler guard dog from the house. Schintzius pulled the dog outdoors, but instead of paying up, prosecutors claim, Williams shot the dog twice, killing and "almost decapitating" it, and then pointed the gun at his friend, telling him "get this f---ing dog off my porch or you're next."

Williams denies the incident.

Coleman told prosecutors both incidents were "highly prejudicial and inflammatory" against Williams and could not be used as evidence. But Williams' decision to tell his story on the stand might give prosecutors a second chance at getting the prior shootings in as evidence.

If, under questioning by his own attorney, Williams makes statements that prosecutors believe are belied by the prior alleged shootings, they can ask Coleman to reconsider his ruling and let them question Williams.

"If he sticks to the facts of what happened that night, and that's what I believe he'll do, then he's got a pretty good argument for keeping inadmissible evidence out during cross-examination," said Honecker, noting that judges are wary of allowing too much negative information in and having the case later overturned by an appeals court.

But John Fahy, a former Bergen County prosecutor now in private practice, said the testimony tightrope might prove impossible to walk. He said even the most simple question by prosecutor Steven Lember could blow open the doors to the prior incidents.

"Take an innocuous question like, 'Do you know guns are dangerous?'" said Fahy, who was prosecutor during the 1994 shooting. "If he says yes, you ask him how he knows that. If he says no, you say, 'Really? Where's your dog?'"

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