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Bryant's Trial May Wait Till Season Ends

August 07, 2003|Steve Henson, Lance Pugmire and David Kelly | Times Staff Writers

EAGLE, Colo. — Laker star Kobe Bryant made his court appearance Wednesday on charges of felony sexual assault and was given a preliminary-hearing date of Oct. 9.

This could mean a spring trial, but legal experts said a judge typically will take personal and professional factors into consideration, meaning the proceedings could be delayed until next summer -- after the NBA playoffs.

The hearing was short but attracted wide interest. Television networks and cable news stations broke away from regular programming to broadcast the hearing, which lasted only seven minutes.

Afterward, Bryant, 24, ducked out of the Eagle County Justice Center and into a sport utility vehicle, which sped off in a three-car caravan as a crush of onlookers yelled their support. He is accused of raping a 19-year-old college student June 30 at a resort near here.

The 68-seat courtroom was packed to capacity with reporters and members of the public. Dressed in a cream-colored suit, Bryant sat stoically between his attorneys, Harold Haddon on his left, Pamela Mackey on his right. Bryant's wife, Vanessa, did not attend the hearing.

The five-time NBA All-Star spoke only once, when he replied "No, sir," to Judge Frederick Gannett's question of whether he objected to the Oct. 9 date, thereby waiving his right to a preliminary hearing within 30 days.

That date is a Thursday, three weeks before the start of the NBA regular season and the day the Lakers are tentatively scheduled to return to Los Angeles after exhibition games the previous two nights at the University of Hawaii.

The preliminary hearing may last only one day, the judge said.

"At some point in the future, when the timing is right, we'll sit with Kobe and discuss his plans for training camp and the upcoming season," Laker spokesman John Black said. "And at that point, we'll have a statement to make." He declined to comment further.

Sources close to Bryant said he has told them he will attend training camp in Honolulu, reporting when veterans are due Oct. 2, and that he plans to play as much of the regular season as possible. Bryant is also a member of the U.S. Olympic team that will play in Athens from Aug. 15-28, 2004.

Bryant's arraignment could be held two to four weeks after the preliminary hearing, legal experts said. Barring a plea bargain or dismissal, a trial would be within six months after that unless good cause for a delay is established.

"If the defense asks for a continuance to have more time to prepare, it would be accepted," said Craig Truman, a Denver criminal defense attorney. "But there would be hell to pay if they are monkeying around because of Olympic dates."

Bryant has said he committed adultery by having consensual sex with his accuser in his hotel room at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo. He faces four years to life in prison if convicted.

Gannett's first order of business Wednesday was to announce that he has appointed a special investigator from the Pitkin County Sheriff's Department in Aspen, Colo., to address defense concerns that Eagle County sheriff's officials or other authorities are leaking critical information about the case to the media.

"I became concerned about this last week when I saw some news stories suggesting they had gathered facts from undisclosed materials," Gannett said to reporters outside the courtroom. "It's not that the [published] information mimicked the information in the court file, but I chose to address it."

Kim Andree, a spokesperson for the Eagle County Sheriff's Department, which arrested Bryant on July 4, said Sheriff Joseph Hoy and his staff will be "totally cooperative" with the special investigator's work.

Wednesday's hearing was covered by an estimated 400 media members, who set up across the street from the courthouse in a lot that grew to resemble a high-tech Grateful Dead encampment.

The lot is owned by local businessman Bob Gallegos, who volunteered the land as a favor to county officials. He plans to begin charging rent before the preliminary hearing, a secretary at his place of business said, and several news organizations have offered thousands of dollars a day for exclusive use of the lot.

The spectacle was noted in court by Gannett.

"This was a very fast event for so much attention," he said.

Moments later, the judge ended the hearing, saying almost apologetically, "This is really it."

Shortly after that, Bryant walked back into the Colorado sunshine and was greeted by cheers from the spectators and curiosity-seekers who rushed to the front of the roped-off lawn.

"We love you, Kobe!" several young girls shouted.

Kersten Herrara, 20, drove five hours from Pueblo, Colo., just to get a glimpse of Bryant. She is convinced of his innocence.

"I really like him, he's a great basketball player," she explained. "I'm sticking with him."

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