Former NBA star Jayson Williams, his personal life in shambles, took responsibility for accidentally shooting his limousine driver to death eight years ago by pleading guilty Monday to assault and agreeing to serve at least 18 months in prison.
Williams was awaiting retrial on a reckless manslaughter count but pleaded guilty to the lesser aggravated assault count for the 2002 death of Costas Christofi.
Williams remained poised during the hearing and mostly answered yes and no questions, though he did tell the judge that he had not fully checked a shotgun he was showing off to friends 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 and that the gunshot caused Christofi’s death.
Williams, who was charged with drunken driving after crashing his SUV into a tree in New York last week, had stitches visible above his right eye.
“Today is the first step in moving toward closure,” said Williams’ attorney, Joseph Hayden. He and Williams both declined to speak further about the case, citing a gag order.
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 in state prison for the aggravated assault charge and up to five years for a prior conviction of trying to cover up the crime. The sentences will be concurrent and he’ll be eligible for parole after 18 months.
“Jayson is relieved that closure has come to this matter,” said Williams’ friend and manager, Akhtar Farzaie. “He remains frustrated that he can’t speak about it. He would have agreed to the aggravated assault charges years ago, but it was never an option.”
Williams has been free on bail since the shooting.
On Monday, the prosecution asked that his bail be revoked. Deputy Attorney General Steven Farman cited the recent New York accident, among other incidents, before saying, “The public has a right to be protected from Jayson Williams.”
State Superior Court Judge Edward M. Coleman allowed him to remain free, with restrictions, until his Feb. 23 sentencing.
Williams was acquitted in 2004 of aggravated manslaughter and convicted of trying to cover up the shooting. 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.
On Monday, Williams said he had been giving about 10 friends a tour of his New Jersey home on Feb. 14, 2002, and when they reached the bedroom, he started showing them his gun collection. While showing off a double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun, Williams admitted Monday, he failed to check the safety mechanism and inspected only one of the two barrels before snapping it shut.
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 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 client communication issues.
The Christofi family, who was in the courtroom when Williams pleaded guilty, declined to comment. Williams paid the family more than $2 million in 2003 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
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, although she sat behind him in court Monday and later accompanied him out of the courthouse.
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.
Williams is due back in a Manhattan court March 3 on the New York drunken driving charge.