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Bryant's Hearing Will Be Short and Well Covered

August 06, 2003|Lance Pugmire and Steve Henson | Times Staff Writers

EAGLE, Colo. — Over the scrub and brush of a dirt lot across from the Eagle County Justice Center, a tent city has risen.

Eleven canopies cover newly constructed temporary studios for live television broadcasts. Parked bumper to bumper next to them are dozens of RVs, SUVs and large trucks, their satellite dishes pointed to the heavens.

Near the courthouse, restaurants and stores bustle with business. Around town, which is isolated from most of the hubbub, nary a vacant motel room can be found.

Kobe Bryant will be here today, making his first court appearance in the sexual assault case that has transformed a portion of this normally tranquil mountain community into what is most often described as a three-ring media circus.

All for a bond hearing that probably will last only minutes.

The overkill is not lost even on those who take part in it.

Tom Hoch, a veteran independent cameraman and producer who is working for the entertainment television show "Extra," surmised that, faced with a similar situation 20 years ago, networks would take only a clip from the proceeding, then drive it back to Denver to be distributed for use on the nightly news.

"Now it's all instantaneous," he said Tuesday. "It's all about what's happening now. You watch, tomorrow when Kobe Bryant steps out of [his] car, it'll be like the second coming of Christ."

Last week, a judge denied a motion by Bryant's attorneys to waive his appearance at this first hearing, where the Laker star might not even speak.

Bryant, 24, is accused of raping a 19-year-old Eagle woman in an Edwards, Colo., hotel room on the night of June 30. The charge is a Class 3 felony for allegedly causing "sexual penetration or intrusion and ... submission of the victim through actual physical force," Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert said.

It will be about 4 p.m. local time when the five-time NBA All-Star will be escorted into a small, jampacked courtroom. County Judge Frederick Gannett will advise Bryant of his rights, the charge against him, and his possible sentence -- four years to life in prison.

Gannett will also advise Bryant of his right to a preliminary hearing, in which the prosecution must convince a judge that there is probable cause that Bryant sexually assaulted his accuser, a woman who worked at the resort where he was staying before undergoing knee surgery.

Routine proceedings for this type of case -- in an environment that is anything but normal.

"The only good thing about tomorrow," said Paul Ramsay, an Eagle police officer who will be patrolling near the courthouse, "is that should the courts decide to keep the trial in Eagle, this gives us an idea about what to expect down the road when this thing becomes even bigger."

Bryant has 10 days to make a written demand for the preliminary hearing, although he is expected to make that demand today. Gannett would then assign a date for the hearing within 30 days.

As it is in California, the standard prosecutors must meet to establish probable cause, like the evidence they reveal, is minimal compared with the extensive testimony and evidence they must provide a jury during a trial.

Unlike in California, Bryant is not obligated in Colorado's judicial system to enter a not-guilty plea in an arraignment until a judge rules that the probable cause standard has been met.

Should Hurlbert's office meet the standard, Gannett would then move, or "bind over," the case to the 5th Judicial District courtroom of R. Thomas Moorhead, also in the Eagle County Justice Center.

Moorhead is expected to preside over Bryant's arraignment. Within six months of his plea, Bryant would have the right to a jury trial.

Harold Haddon, one of Bryant's attorneys, has said he is unsure if Bryant's case would last "six, 12 or 24 months."

The Lakers' first regular-season game is Oct. 28 against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center. The NBA already has announced that Bryant will be allowed to play while his court case proceeds.

"There's nothing typical about this case, and sexual assault cases have particularly tricky time frames that have to be developed based on their individual complexities," said Terry Ruckriegle, chief judge of the judicial district that includes Eagle.

"Along with homicides, sexual assaults are definitely not the quickest ones to go through."

A judge "within reason," Ruckriegle said, "will always take into consideration personal and professional factors in determining how far out to set a trial."

Scheduling court hearings and a trial around Bryant's involvement in an 82-game NBA regular season and a likely playoff run, Hurlbert's two active murder cases and the schedule of the defense attorneys will be a complex process -- and one that will be closely monitored.

"Everyone is wanting to know about everything that happened -- they're expecting so much to happen in one day," ABC cameraman Rusty Powers said Tuesday.

"[Today] we'll start with live remotes at 1 a.m. and go all the way through to midnight."

Powers has worked in a media frenzy before, having covered the Oklahoma City bombing and the killing of JonBenet Ramsey.

His comparison: "This," he said, surveying the tumult around him on what used to be a vacant lot, "is pretty big."

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