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THE REGION

Kobe Bryant Ordered to Stand Trial

The judge says probable cause exists, but he points out flaws in the sexual assault case.

October 21, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant must stand trial for felony sexual assault, a Colorado judge ruled Monday, even as he acknowledged that the case against the Laker star was weak.

In a comprehensive nine-page filing, Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett said prosecutors had established probable cause to send the case to district court, meaning the unnerving shadow hanging over the Laker season will linger for months while Bryant fights charges that could lead to a lifelong prison sentence.

In his last decision pertaining to the case -- a district judge will take it from here -- Gannett made it clear the prosecution case did not overwhelm him:

"Almost all of the evidence," he said, "permits multiple inferences, which ... do not support" sending the case to trial..

Nevertheless, he continued, a trial is warranted because "the alleged victim's statement presents evidence of sexual intercourse against her will and subject to the application of force, resulting in pain and injury."

Bryant could enter a plea as early as the morning of Nov. 10, when he will appear before a 5th District judge in Eagle, Colo.Later that day, the Lakers are scheduled to play a regular-season game in Memphis, Tenn. If he does not enter a plea then, a separate arraignment could be scheduled several weeks later.

Laker officials had no comment on the ruling, or the timing of the next scheduled hearing. Bryant was unavailable for comment after the ruling, but earlier in the day told reporters, "God will carry me the rest of the way. I'm pretty comfortable with that. You do that, you'll have no problem whatsoever."

Bryant, 25, and his 19-year-old accuser had sex June 30 at an Edwards, Colo., resort hotel where the woman worked. She says he raped her, telling the detective who testified at the preliminary hearing that Bryant grabbed her by the neck and forced her to have intercourse.

Bryant has said the sex was consensual, although his statement to investigators was not heard in open court during a preliminary hearing that spanned two days -- Oct. 9 and Oct. 15 -- and included more than eight hours of testimony.

Gannett, who took five days to issue his ruling, offered a glimpse into Bryant's version of events, writing, "The closed testimony pertaining to the defendant's statement" contradicts the victim's version of what took place before and during the time the two had sex.

Legal experts weren't surprised by Gannett's decision to order a trial, but many agreed with Denver criminal defense attorney Larry Pozner's between-the-lines analysis: "This is a judge saying, 'If that's your best case, then why are we here?' "

Added Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, "Rarely have I seen a message on probable cause that was that blunt in telling the prosecutor that he was hanging by a thread."

Bryant attorney Hal Haddon explained why the defense team went ahead with the preliminary hearing despite predictions that it would be waived. He also made it clear what he expects the outcome of a trial to be:

"As the court notes in its decision, almost all of the evidence viewed either independently or collectively does not support a finding of probable cause, let alone proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the test to be applied at trial.

"It is only because the court was constrained by Colorado case law requiring inferences to be made in the light most favorable to the prosecution that this matter barely survived the test of the preliminary hearing.

"Judge Gannett's decision does not change the fact that this case cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and should never have been filed.... Because Kobe Bryant is innocent, the prosecution's case simply had to be tested despite the fact that the odds were against us prevailing. We will prevail at trial."

Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert held a different view, stating that he is "pleased with the judge's decision, although we had confidence all along in the case and presentation of evidence, and we were therefore confident it would be bound over to district court."

A trial would be scheduled within six months of the arraignment under Colorado's speedy trial law, although Bryant could waive that right, meaning the proceedings could take place as soon as March or as late as next fall. Prosecutors could object to an attempt by Bryant to push back the trial, but experts say defense attorneys would have sound reasons to take their time.

"There are going to be a lot of evidentiary issues before they pick a jury," said Karen Steinhauser, a former prosecutor who teaches law at the University of Denver. "Prosecutors requested money for a lot of expert witnesses. I'm sure the defense will have its own experts. It takes time to find the experts and have them review the case."

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