Former NBA star Jayson Williams will serve at least 18 months in prison following his guilty plea in the 2002 shooting death of a limousine driver, a judge ruled Tuesday.
On Jan. 11, Williams took responsibility for accidentally shooting Costas Christofi to death eight years ago by pleading guilty to a lesser charge of aggravated assault and agreeing to serve at least 18 months of a five-year prison sentence.
He was awaiting retrial on a charge of reckless manslaughter, a count that would have carried a maximum 10-year prison sentence had he been convicted.
State Superior Court Judge Edward Coleman sentenced Williams Tuesday to a total of five years on the cover-up counts, which will run concurrent to the assault sentence. He will be eligible for parole after 18 months.
In court, a tearful Williams apologized to the Christofi family and to his own family and friends.
“I sincerely apologize for my actions that caused [Christofi's] death,” Williams said. “I’m embarrassed and deeply sorry for my choices and actions.
“To my family, please forgive me for the pain I’ve caused my children. You deserve a better father, son, brother than I have been,” he said.
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 last month.
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.
During his plea last month, 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 in his plea that 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.
Williams paid the Christofi family more than $2 million in 2003 to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
Williams, 42, 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.