Ruling on Williams Motion Delayed by Death

A ruling in the Jayson Williams (search) manslaughter trial was put off until Thursday morning due to a death in the family of the lead prosecutor of the retired NBA (search) star.

Court had been expected to convene Tuesday afternoon for a decision on a dismissal motion by the defense, which charged that prosecutorial misconduct regarding evidence had deprived Williams of a fair trial.

Prosecutors maintained that the error, late disclosure of notes and photographs from one of their proposed witnesses, was inadvertent.

The trial over the shooting of a hired driver, which began Feb. 10, was suspended over the dispute on April 1, just as lawyers were crafting their summations.

State Superior Court Judge Edward M. Coleman gave the defense over a week to evaluate the new evidence, and heard testimony and argument on the dismissal motion on Monday. The jury has not heard live testimony since March 30.

A dismissal means it would be likely that Williams could not be tried again.

The court learned Tuesday morning of the Monday death of Beverly Ellenport, of Clark, sister-in-law of Steven C. Lember, first assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor. The woman is the sister of Lember's wife, and is to be buried Wednesday.

This is the second time a death has halted the trial. It was adjourned for three days in March after the death of defense lawyer Joseph A. Hayden Jr.'s mother in Florida.

The evidence dispute centers on whether prosecutors intentionally withheld the notes and photographs their weapons expert took when he examined the shotgun that Williams was handling two years ago when it fired, killing a hired driver.

It arose just after the defense rested its case, when Lember said he realized the material had not been turned over before trial, as required, when preparing the witness for rebuttal testimony.

The shotgun is a pillar of the defense case, which maintains the weapon, a Browning Citori double-barreled 12-gauge, fired accidentally when Williams snapped it shut. The prosecution maintains the shooting was reckless and that Williams then staged a cover-up.

Hayden on Monday told the judge that the error was intentional and deprives Williams of a fair trial because even if witnesses were brought back for testimony on the new material, it would be outside the flow and context of the trial.

He insisted the mistake was part of a pattern of misconduct that began when Lember visited the Williams mansion hours after the shooting, and persisted through two grand juries, jury selection and the trial. The judge has previously rejected such suggestions.

He said that the new evidence shows that Lember influenced the prosecution's proposed rebuttal witness, Larry Nelson, a vice president of Browning Arms Co. (search), of Mountain Green, Utah, to issue a report that would not contradict a State Police weapons expert.

The trooper has told the jury that the shotgun could not be induced to misfire.

The defense said evidence may have been altered or lost when Nelson examined the shotgun Feb. 5, 2003, without the defense present. The defense in August 2003 got Nelson's report, which mentioned the examination but did not say he had removed the stock and barrel, as the notes and photographs make clear.

Assistant Prosecutor Katharine Errickson told the judge that the defense had due notice of Nelson's examination, and its own experts have not said how the new material would change their opinions.

Williams, 36, is charged with recklessly handling a shotgun, and then trying to make the Feb. 14, 2002, shooting look like a suicide and persuading others to lie that Costas Christofi (search), 55, shot himself. The shooting happened in Williams' bedroom at his Alexandria Township estate.

Williams faces eight charges, the most serious of which is aggravated manslaughter. Collectively, they carry up to 55 years in prison. The least of the charges carries a penalty of up to 18 months in prison, but would likely result in probation.

Williams had gone with some friends to see a Harlem Globetrotters game in Bethlehem, Pa. Christofi had driven four Globetrotters from the game to a restaurant near the Williams estate for dinner with the retired star and most of the group. They then went to the estate in rural western New Jersey.

Williams retired from the New Jersey Nets in 2000 after a decade in the NBA, unable to overcome a broken leg suffered a year earlier in a collision with a teammate. He was suspended from his job as an NBA analyst for NBC after the shooting.