Jayson Williams after pleading guilty to assault
Former St. John's and Nets star Jayson Williams pleaded guilty Monday to aggravated assault and will serve at least 18 months in prison for accidentally killing a limousine driver in his bedroom, finally closing one chapter in his troubled post-NBA life.
Williams was awaiting retrial on a reckless manslaughter count but pleaded guilty to the lesser count for the 2002 death of Costas Christofi.
The Lower East Side-native, once of the most beloved and colorful figures in New York sports, remained poised during the hearing and mostly answered "yes" and "no" questions, though he did tell the judge that had not fully checked the gun's safety before snapping it closed.
"I didn't look in the direction the muzzle of the gun was pointed," he said, before admitting that his handling of the gun was reckless.
The assault charge carries a minimum 18-month sentence because a gun was involved. The reckless manslaughter count would have carried a maximum 10-year prison sentence. Under his plea agreement, Williams will serve 18 months to five years in state prison and would be eligible for parole after 18 months.
Williams, who was charged with drunken driving after crashing his SUV into a tree in New York last week, had about 25 stitches visible above his right eye.
He was acquitted in 2004 of aggravated manslaughter and convicted of trying to cover up the crime. The jury deadlocked on a reckless manslaughter count, and a retrial on that charge was due to start this week.
Witnesses testified during the trial that Williams was showing off a shotgun when he snapped the weapon shut and it fired, hitting Christofi. They also testified that Williams initially put the gun in the dead man's hands and told witnesses to lie about what happened.
The defense maintained the shooting was an accident and that Williams panicked afterward.
Years of legal sparring followed the trial.
Defense attorneys tried to get the case tossed out, citing a racial slur uttered by a white investigator in the Hunterdon County Prosecutor's Office during a meeting with other law enforcement officials. A judge, however, ruled against Williams, who is black, on appeal.
In November, it appeared a plea deal had been reached, but was indefinitely postponed at the last minute. His lawyers asked to be removed from his defense, citing communication issues.
Williams had been free on bail since the Feb. 14, 2002, shooting and will remain free until his Feb. 23 sentencing. He and his attorney declined to comment, citing a gag order.
The Christofi family, who was in the courtroom when Williams pleaded guilty, declined to comment. Williams paid more than $2 million in 2003 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Christofi's family.
Williams, 41, played nine seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets before a leg injury forced him to retire in 2000. He was in the second year of a six-year, $86 million contract.
He became an NBA analyst for NBC but was suspended after Christofi's shooting. He attempted a short-lived comeback in the minor league Continental Basketball Association in 2005.
Williams has suffered several recent personal setbacks.
His wife filed for divorce last year and police used a stun gun on him in a New York hotel after a female friend said he was acting suicidal. He was charged with assault in May after allegedly punching a man in the face outside a North Carolina bar, but charges were dropped.
Williams' father, E.J., with whom he owned a construction business, died in South Carolina in November.
Last week, he was charged with drunken driving after crashing his SUV into a tree in New York. He was in the passenger seat when officers arrived, and he told them someone else had been driving, according to police. But witnesses told police they saw him in the driver's seat, and officers said no one else was in the car. He is due back in a Manhattan court March 3 on that charge.