Somerville, N.J. Once a fierce NBA rebounder and wisecracking television commentator, Jayson Williams is now a defendant who hopes to avoid a long prison sentence in the shooting death of a limo driver.
Jury selection from an expected pool of 300 begins today and might last until the end of the month. The manslaughter trial was moved to a neighboring county because of publicity.
The 35-year-old Williams has been free on bail. His lawyers maintain the fatal shooting at his estate nearly two years ago was accidental.
Williams, a former All-Star center for the New Jersey Nets, is accused of shooting the driver, then trying to cover it up. Manslaughter and witness tampering are among the seven charges that could carry up to 55 years in prison.
His trial comes as Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case proceeds in Colorado, putting a spotlight on two prominent basketball players charged with serious crimes. Bryant's next hearing dates are Feb. 2-3.
Costas Christofi, 55, was killed Feb. 14, 2002. He had driven Williams' friends from a Harlem Globetrotters show in Bethlehem, Pa., to a restaurant, then to the 65-acre, 40-room estate in Alexandria Township.
Two guests pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence, one for wiping the shotgun that killed Christofi, the other for hiding Williams' clothes. Both agreed to testify against him.
Williams' lawyer, Joseph Hayden Jr., and a defense spokeswoman did not return several messages. Hayden will be joined by Washington lawyer Billy Martin. Opposing them will be Steven Lember, first assistant Hunterdon County prosecutor since 1991.
"One thing the defense wants is people who will not hold his celebrity status against him," said Robert Zatorski, a criminal defense lawyer in Saddle Brook and a former assistant prosecutor in Hudson County.
Race could play a role based on defense efforts to see the service records of state troopers involved in the investigation and the ethnic breakdown of the grand jury that handed up the indictment. Williams is black.
That is a risky defense strategy, said Alan Zegas, a lawyer who has led defense attorney organizations.
"They're going to want to be sure they choose jurors that will be blind to race," Zegas said.
According to prosecution documents, Williams wiped the gun and tried to put the victim's hand or fingerprints on it; he removed his clothing, jumped into a pool and put on new clothes. He told guests they must agree the shooting was a suicide and tell police they had been downstairs, the documents said.
Williams retired from the Nets in 2000 after a decade in the NBA, unable to overcome a broken leg from a year earlier. He was one of the game's big personalities, always quick with a one-liner. He was suspended from his job as an NBA analyst for NBC after the shooting.
"Jurors give verdicts to people that they like," said Houston lawyer David Berg, author of "The Trial Lawyer: What it Takes to Win." "Now here, you've got an extremely charming man."
In his 2000 memoir, Williams wrote that while on a range at his estate he almost shot New York Jets wide receiver Wayne Chrebet.
In 1994, Williams was charged with reckless endangerment and possession of a weapon after shots were fired at an unoccupied security vehicle outside the Nets' arena. He never admitted shooting at the truck.
He entered a pretrial intervention program and spent a year preaching gun safety to kids. He placed an ad in The Record of Hackensack in 1995 that said: "Shoot for the top. Shoot for your future. Shoot Baskets, not Guns."
Williams completed the program a year later, and the charges against him were dismissed.