Williams Acquitted of Aggravated Manslaughter

The jury in the Jayson Williams (search) trial on Friday found the former NBA (search) star not guilty of aggravated manslaughter in the shooting death of his former limo driver.

Jurors could not reach a decision on the charge of reckless manslaughter. A scheduling conference to determine a trial date on that charge was set for May 21.

Of the other six charges, the jury found Williams not guilty of possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and of aggravated assault. But it found him guilty of hindering apprehension, tampering with witnesses, tampering with evidence and fabricating physical evidence.

Collectively, the guilty charges carry a maximum penalty of 13 years in prison. But Williams will probably receive a sentence of less than five years, the maximum for the most serious count. No date was set for sentencing.

If Williams had been convicted of aggravated murder, he could have faced a 30-year sentence.

Williams displayed no emotion as he stood with his lawyers. After the verdict was completed, he sat down in his chair, leaned back and kissed his wife, Tanya, who was seated behind him. He remains free on bail.

He did not speak to reporters as he left the courtroom holding hands with his wife.

The defense argued that the shooting 55-year-old Costas "Gus" Christofi (search) was accidental, saying a malfunction in the gun's firing mechanism caused the weapon to fire. Prosecutors contended Williams was handling the shotgun so recklessly that it amounted to a crime.

The shooting happened Feb. 14, 2002, while Williams gave friends and members of the Harlem Globetrotters a tour of his mansion in Alexandria Township.

According to testimony, Williams, who had a skeet-shooting range on his 65-acre estate, took a loaded shotgun from a cabinet in the master bedroom. He turned, uttered an expletive at Christofi, possibly in jest, and then snapped the weapon shut, and it went off, according to testimony.

Christofi was struck in the chest and died within minutes. Williams dropped to his knees and wailed, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" and "My life is over," according to witnesses.

Witnesses testified that Williams wiped the gun down, then put it in Christofi's hands. The former basketball star stripped naked, pushed his clothes into the arms of a friend, told him to get rid of them, and took a swim in his indoor pool before police arrived.

Four Globetrotters testified with immunity, after initially telling police they were downstairs at the time of the shooting -- a cover story they said Williams demanded. Two of Williams' friends pleaded guilty to evidence tampering and testified.

A weapons expert testifying for the defense said the shotgun's firing mechanism was worn and fouled with wood chips, rust and oil. He said the weapon could misfire when snapped shut. Prosecution experts disputed that.

Williams did not testify during the nearly three-month trial, telling the judge he had "great confidence" in the jury.

Prosecutor Steven C. Lember told the jury Williams was reckless because he had been drinking and chose to handle a loaded weapon in a room where other people were standing. "When you play with deadly weapons, `accident' is no defense," Lember said.

Defense attorney Billy Martin said: "That gun was never pointed, was not aimed. It was not meant to be directed at Gus Christofi. It's a tragic accident."

Early this month, Williams' lawyers demanded that the charges be dismissed because the prosecution withheld some evidence until the defense had rested. During a three-week break in testimony to address the dispute, the judge decided the mistake was unintentional and allowed the defense to reopen its case.

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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.