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For Rookie D.A., a Case Study in Support Group Dynamics

August 05, 2003|Steve Henson and Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writers

All the more reason for teamwork, although leaning on others is an about-face for Hurlbert. After Bryant was arrested, Hurlbert told The Times that he would personally do the prosecuting in the case that could bring the 24-year-old NBA All-Star four years to life in prison.

"I generally will be on most of the high-profile cases," he said. "I would [try the case]. It's the reason I got in the business."

But at the meeting with district attorneys statewide, he looked around the room and realized there was no need to go it alone.

State attorney Salazar, who has 210 lawyers on staff, and Denver D.A. Ritter, who has 65, were the first to pledge support. Others followed suit.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Kobe Bryant -- A Sports article Tuesday incorrectly stated that the Denver district attorney's office would supply the 5th Judicial District with financial aid in the Kobe Bryant case. The aid will come in the form of staff time and research help, according to Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Denver district attorney's office.

"It's a very cooperative group," said Mary Keenan, Boulder County district attorney. "We were going to give Mark what he needed to do the job right."

Keenan offered the services of Bakke, a champion of children's and sex assault victims' rights. Ritter gave his approval, telling Hurlbert, "Ingrid is the Cadillac version in terms of sexual assault prosecutors."

Bakke, 40, has handled several high-profile sex cases in Boulder and in Jefferson County, where she worked from 1990 to 2001. She helped in the prosecution of three men accused of raping and killing a 14-year-old honor student in 1997 -- getting a death penalty verdict against one of them -- and more recently won convictions against serial rapist Keith Schwinaman and a police officer accused of sexually assaulting a teenage girl.

Precisely how the caseload will be divided among Hurlbert, Bakke and Crittenden is unclear. Crittenden, 33, has worked in the 5th Judicial District office only since March, but appears to have gained the trust of his boss.

At the first significant court hearing in the Bryant case -- a motion last week by news organizations to unseal critical documents -- Crittenden argued forcefully, contending Colorado's criminal justice records act requires such information to remain closed in order to protect an alleged victim's privacy and reduce the information disseminated to a potential jury pool.

"We can't treat this case like any other case," Crittenden told Judge Frederick Gannett. "We're not dealing with a normal person. We're dealing with a celebrity who's known worldwide."

Later, he pleaded for the rights of the accuser, arguing that unsealing the documents would "allow [reporters] to talk about the facts of the case and what can only possibly be the most tragic, horrific, embarrassing event of the victim's life. That alone re-victimizes her every time she sees or hears about it."

Hurlbert, until he brought charges against Bryant, had developed a reputation for being cautious in high-profile cases.

In one emotionally charged instance, he dropped sexual assault charges against an Illinois man who allegedly raped a sleeping 24-year-old woman in an Avon hotel room in December 2001. The case was set to go to trial in January of this year, but Hurlbert backed off weeks after taking office.

"He didn't even have the guts to call us," said Mike Holcomb, the alleged victim's father. "It was an open-and-shut case. The [deputy] district attorney handling the case and the detectives who investigated, they all wanted to go to trial."

Hurlbert told Holcomb that he couldn't prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the same standard he said applied when filing charges against Bryant.

Yet some local attorneys believe that standard has been elastic.

They say Hurlbert has pushed to "bump the numbers" and compile a high percentage of convictions in relatively uncomplicated cases while declining to press charges in more involved, potentially expensive cases.

Eagle County defense attorney Bruce Carey said Hurlbert has aggressively prosecuted minor drug offenders, eliminating an option that made some eligible for treatment for one year. If clean after that period, the charge would be dismissed.

"I think [Hurlbert] is more concerned with getting a felony conviction -- to build up his numbers," Carey said.

Some attorneys familiar with Hurlbert also are troubled by his statement during the announcement of Bryant's charge that he would prosecute a case only if he was convinced there was sufficient evidence.

"Clearly, that hasn't always been the standard," Carey said, pointing to a felony case in which he represented an Avon man, William Walter Pyka, 56, who was arrested in March 2002 on suspicion of stalking his ex-girlfriend.

In January, the prosecutor, Brenda Parks, informed Hurlbert she could not prove the case and was unprepared for trial because she had failed to subpoena necessary witnesses.

However, Hurlbert said in an April 4 sworn statement obtained by The Times that Parks "did not say she could not prove the case." Hurlbert amended the statement April 23, acknowledging that Parks "told me she was unprepared to go to trial and that she could not prove the case."

Despite knowing he could not take the case to trial, Hurlbert persuaded Pyka to plea bargain to misdemeanor harassment.

"Maybe that's shrewd lawyering," said another prosecutor who did not want to be identified. "Maybe he's learning on the job."

The Bryant case promises to be full of powerful lessons as well, not the least of which is the value of teamwork. With help from prosecutors all over the state, Hurlbert might be able to overcome shortages of manpower and money.

"It deserves," Ritter said, "everyone's best effort."

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