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Allegations of prosecutor misconduct derail Williams trial

Harriet Ryan
Court TV

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SOMERVILLE, New Jersey (Court TV) -- A judge suspended Jayson Williams' manslaughter trial for a week Monday to allow the former NBA star's lawyers to respond to alleged misconduct by prosecutors.

Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman agreed to the postponement after defense attorneys asked for more time to evaluate last week's revelation that a prosecutor failed to disclose photographs and notes made by a gun expert.

"I have agreed to give you every opportunity to find out what is out there and how it's going to affect your case, if at all," the judge told lawyers for Williams, who is accused of fatally shooting a chauffeur, Costas "Gus" Christofi.

The delay comes in the final stretch of Williams' nine-week trial. Jurors were originally expected to begin deliberating this week.

Attorney Joseph Hayden Jr. said the defense wants to review the previously undisclosed materials more thoroughly and consult with its own gun experts before deciding what punishment to seek against prosecutors. The defense could ask Coleman for a variety of penalties, including declaring a mistrial or dismissing the charges completely.

The attorney also requested access to the computer hard drives of the expert, Larry Nelson, and lead prosecutor, Steven Lember, and suggested he might put both men on the witness stand to get information.

"We do not want to commit until we have a full factual record," Hayden said, adding that the defense team was "working around the clock to deal with this."

Nelson, who is chief engineer of Browning Arms, spent three hours inspecting the 12-gauge Citori Feb. 5, 2003. His testing included removing the stock of the weapon to view its inner mechanism and taking 23 photographs of the gun in stages of disassembly.

But the only report shared with the defense did not include the photographs, nor any references to taking the gun apart.

The prosecutor had previously objected when a defense gun expert disassembled the weapon, saying then that removing parts of the gun fundamentally altered it as evidence.

In court papers filed Monday afternoon, Lember implied that Nelson did not have his permission to partially dismantle the gun.

"There was to be no disassembly of the internal parts since my position had been that any such disassembly might alter the character of the evidence," the prosecutor wrote.

He also reiterated the claim he made last week that failing to provide the photos was an oversight, not deception. He suggested the mistake occurred because his office was inundated with requests for other material from defense lawyers and noted that he turned over 6,000 pages of evidence to them.

"It was inadvertent in that the existence of the photographs was simply forgotten," he wrote, adding that he did not believe Williams' case had suffered any harm by the late discovery of the photos.

In testy arguments before the judge Monday morning, defense attorneys said they had received 96 pages of previously undisclosed evidence over the weekend and that the materials indicated Lember's failure to turn over the evidence was intentional. Hayden pointed to a draft report from Nelson that included references to taking the gun apart. That section of the report was later removed, Hayden noted.

Assistant Hunterdon County Prosecutor Katharine Errickson insisted the changes to the report were minor and not substantive. With Lember sitting silently beside her, she mocked the defense attorneys for raising their voices during the arguments and implied they were exaggerating the importance of the expert's notes and photographs.

"We agree that they are entitled to that discovery ... but it has to be reasonable, pertinent to the issues and not some out-of-control global discovery request," she said.

Over the weekend, Williams' expansive legal team added another member to deal specifically with the allegations. Philadelphia lawyer Joseph Lawless is the author of the text book "Prosecutorial Misconduct: Law, Procedure, Forms." Its most recent edition includes a case study of pretrial disputes in the Williams trial.

Williams, a one-time New Jersey Nets All-Star, appeared upbeat as he entered court with his wife Monday. He whispered to his lawyers during arguments, gesturing emphatically as he spoke. His wife, Tanya, is to give birth to the couple's second child this month.

The 36-year-old retired athlete is facing 55 years in prison for killing Christofi at his mansion February 14, 2002. He claims the shooting was an unforeseeable accident caused by a malfunction in the shotgun.

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