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NEWS ANALYSIS

Bryant Unlikely to Seek a Plea

November 06, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Publicity generated by the legal proceedings involving Kobe Bryant has not been kind to the Laker star or to the woman who has accused him of rape. A trial is certain to expose more embarrassing details, giving both parties reason to seek an alternative. But experts say a plea bargain is highly unlikely.

There does not appear to be a diminished charge available under Colorado law that would be acceptable to Bryant, his accuser and Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert -- the three people who must walk away satisfied from any deal.

Bryant has been charged with felony sexual assault, and a conviction could result in prison for life. However, he is not expected to plead guilty to a lesser offense -- legal analysts have mentioned misdemeanor assault or false imprisonment as possibilities -- because a recent change in Colorado law would require him to register as a sex offender even if the reduced charge is not sexual in nature.

Also, Bryant has reason to be buoyed by the strong showing of his defense team at his preliminary hearing, although prosecutors often have more evidence than they disclose at such proceedings. His attorneys, in their rare public comments, have indicated they are going full-speed ahead with trial preparations.

The district attorney has his own reasons to take the case to trial. Hurlbert was appointed to his position in January when his predecessor left office and faces an election in 2004.

He repeatedly has said he believes Bryant is guilty and that an Eagle County jury would agree. Striking a deal that would allow the five-time NBA All-Star to avoid prison could create an impression among voters that Hurlbert backed down.

"The parties have committed to their positions," said Scott Robinson, a Denver criminal defense lawyer who has followed the case. "Bryant has way too much to lose to take any plea. The prosecutor has way too much to lose in offering any plea.

"[Hurlbert] would rather take the case to trial and lose than be viewed as a quitter by the people of Eagle County."

Bryant, 25, is accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel worker at an Edwards, Colo., mountain resort on June 30, the night before he had knee surgery. She says he grabbed her by the neck and sexually assaulted her in his hotel room after they had engaged in consensual kissing and hugging. Bryant, a husband and father, says he and the woman had consensual sex.

Analysts say that because consent is the central issue and nobody but Bryant and the woman knows what happened in the room, the outcome of the trial probably will come down to the believability of their testimony, a classic "he said, she said."

Therein lies the possibility that a plea bargain could at least be discussed -- Bryant's attorneys as well as prosecutors know a trial can go either way.

"You never say never to a plea bargain, especially in a consent-based sex assault case," said Bob Ransome, a Denver attorney who has represented dozens of people charged with sexual assault. "New facts are found out, things change as a trial approaches."

A plea presumably would allow Bryant to avoid a long prison sentence and might also interest his accuser, ending the intense scrutiny of her personal life and allowing her to take aim at a civil settlement. Hurlbert, meanwhile, could salvage something out of a prosecution that analysts said appeared weak during the two-day preliminary hearing.

Under Colorado law, plea agreements do not have to be signed off by the alleged victim. However, prosecutors usually seek the victim's approval before striking a deal.

Complicating any negotiation is legislation passed in 2002 to close a loophole that had allowed defendants accused of sexual assault to plead to non-sexual reduced charges without registering as sex offenders.

Now, anyone convicted of a felony in which the "underlying factual basis" involves a sexual component must comply with Colorado's sex offender probation terms -- among the most stringent in the nation. Even pleading to a misdemeanor requires registering as a sex offender, and a judge can order treatment.

Provisions of treatment include almost daily contact with a probation officer, monitored curfew, abstention from drugs and alcohol, payment of restitution and behavioral monitoring.

Only two of 476 people sentenced in Colorado sexual assault cases since 1998 have been freed from prison. And 54 have passed their minimum sentence but are not eligible for parole because they have not completed the treatment program.

"The legislature decided the way to deal with [sex offenders] is to leave it up to the parole department if and when they get out of prison," said Karen Steinhauser, a University of Denver law school professor and sexual assault expert.

Not surprisingly, Bryant attorney Pamela Mackey responded in August to a report that a settlement was imminent by saying, "There's just no way we're going to settle this case. There are no plea negotiations."

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