ATLANTA - A judge took the rare step Tuesday of allowing former NBA player Javaris Crittenton, charged with murder in a drive-by shooting, to go free on bond after hearing friends and coaches testify that he was too focused on making a comeback to squander his future on a revenge killing.
Magistrate Judge Karen Smith Woodson took the unusual step to grant him US$230,000 bond over the objections of prosecutors, who said they feared Crittenton could threaten witnesses who implicated him in the Aug. 19 shooting death of 22-year-old Julian Jones in Atlanta.
The judge, though, banned Crittenton from the crime scene and ordered Paul Hewitt, who was coaching Georgia Tech when Crittenton starred there, to co-sign the bond with others who spent hours testifying on his behalf Tuesday.
The former first-round draft pick for the Los Angeles Lakers, who was suspended from the NBA after a locker room dispute with ex-teammate Gilbert Arenas, was arrested Aug. 30 at a southern California airport and charged with the shooting. Police said Crittenton was retaliating for being robbed of $55,000 worth of jewelry when Jones was mistakenly hit by gunfire while standing outside her house with a man who wasn't injured, 18-year-old Trontavious Stephens.
Atlanta Police Det. James Thorpe testified that police charged Crittenton after Stephens identified the player as the shooter in a photo lineup. Thorpe said investigators were told by Stephens that he had a "good, clear look" at the gunman because he stuck his head out of a dark SUV from the back seat. He also said a neighbour who had spotted Crittenton in the neighbourhood searching for the jewelry thieves told police that Crittenton was the gunman, according to authorities.
Defence lawyer Brian Steel said the charges were based on faulty eyewitness testimony and that no physical evidence linked the player to the shooting. Police haven't located blood or DNA evidence. His fingerprints weren't found in the black SUV he rented hours before the shooting took place, and tests for gunpowder residue are still pending.
Steel also disputed assertions from authorities who said Crittenton stuck his head and arms out of the back of the vehicle. He noted that the window of the black Chevrolet Tahoe he was accused of riding in only gave him about six inches of space.
"There's no physical evidence," Steel said. "There's no gun. There are no confessions."
Crittenton's friends and family, who packed the courtroom and a nearby overflow area, said he was too busy training for his return to the league to worry about stolen jewelry.
His longtime friend Darryl Slack said Crittenton made it his mission in life to be on an NBA roster, and his agent Mark Bartelstein testified that his client had turned down offers to play overseas so he could try out for a few NBA squads when the league's lockout ended.
"He was really focused. He had something to prove," Bartelstein said.
Crittenton is an Atlanta native who starred at Georgia Tech before being drafted by the Lakers in 2007. He was later traded to the Washington Wizards, where he and then-teammate Gilbert Arenas had a dispute over a card game in December 2009. Two days later, Arenas brought four guns to the locker-room and set them in front of Crittenton's locker with a sign telling him to "PICK 1." Crittenton then took out his own gun.
Crittenton pleaded guilty in January 2010 to a misdemeanour gun charge and received a year of unsupervised probation.
He has struggled to get back into the NBA after that episode, playing overseas in China for some months before returning in January to play for the NBA developmental league's Dakota Wizards.
The move was a wake-up call for Crittenton, said Hewitt, now head basketball coach of George Mason University.
"Being there got his attention, He said, 'Coach, it's so cold up here my lungs hurt,'" Hewitt said. "It helped him refocus."
In April, Crittenton told police that he and a friend were leaving a barbershop when two teenagers surprised them. One of the men held Crittenton at gunpoint and forced him to hand over a $25,000 black diamond necklace, a $30,000 black diamond watch, an iPhone and $25 cash, according to a police report.
Stephens has told The Associated Press he had never met Crittenton and wasn't involved in the robbery. Police have said they don't believe Jones, a 23-year-old mother of four, was the intended target, but they haven't said who they believe the gunman was after.
"I didn't know him at all," said Stephens.
The day of the shooting, Hewitt said, he spoke to Crittenton and that he sounded "very upbeat" after some good workouts. He then travelled to visit his ex-girlfriend Mia Fields on a long-planned trip to Los Angeles when he learned police had charged him in the killing, she testified Tuesday.
"He looked shocked, paralyzed and in fear," she told the court. "He said, 'I didn't do this and I can't believe they are blaming me for this.'"
Jack Barrs, a prosecutor in Atlanta's Fulton County, didn't address Crittenton's journey to California before his arrest. But he urged the judge to keep Crittenton in custody so he can't threaten the witnesses crucial to the case.
"This case is about retaliation and revenge," he said. "And as a result of his actions a totally innocent person is dead."
But Steel vowed his client wouldn't violate the conditions of his release and said that doing so could sacrifice a lucrative NBA salary. And Crittenton's pastor, Mark Allen Couch, told the court there was little doubt where the athlete would be each weekend.
"I expect to see him at church," he said.