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Credibility Is the Key Issue as Bryant Case Goes to Trial

August 27, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

EAGLE, Colo. — Fourteen months after Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a young woman in a hotel room near here, the Laker star goes on trial today for felony sexual assault -- a charge that could land him in prison for life.

After more than 700 court filings, two dozen pretrial hearings and widespread speculation that prosecutors would drop the case, jury selection is set to begin at this mountain town's small courthouse. Testimony is expected to begin after the Labor Day weekend.

Judge Terry Ruckriegle has ruled that testimony won't be televised, but swarms of reporters and camera crews have gathered anyway in a makeshift campground outside.

Inside, the story that will be told is likely to be salacious and highly personal.

The woman, 20, will recount her version of events from the night of June 30, 2003 -- that she was invited to Bryant's room, kept there against her will and raped over a chair while held by the neck. Bryant, who kept an appointment to undergo knee surgery the next day, says they had consensual sex; it is not clear whether he will testify.

Legal experts say the prosecution has an uphill climb because the defense will be allowed to present evidence that the woman had sex with someone else hours after the alleged rape.

But some recent rulings have gone the prosecutors' way: Bryant's statements to investigators will be heard by the jury, and evidence of the woman's mental health problems will not.

Central to the case is the accuser's credibility, and its affect on physical evidence introduced by both sides. If convicted, Bryant faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation and a fine.

The woman told investigators that she willingly went to Bryant's room at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera and they kissed consensually. Experts say a key element of her testimony will be the moment she told Bryant "no," what he said to her during intercourse and what she says he forced her to do afterward.

"She has been waiting for the moment she can tell the world what this man did to her," said Karen Steinhauser, a Denver law professor.

Eagle County Det. Doug Winters related the woman's account last fall at the preliminary hearing, but "he could not tell that story with the same passion and compassion that she will," said Norm Early, a former Denver district attorney who has followed the case closely.

How effectively the accuser testifies is only half the battle. She also must withstand cross-examination by Bryant attorneys Pamela Mackey and Hal Haddon.

Based on court filings, the defense will ask her why, as the hotel's front desk clerk, she assigned Bryant a room at the end of a hall, away from his bodyguards, and arrived at his room by a circuitous route. The jury will be reminded she told detectives she expected the Laker star "to put a move on her."

The defense also will suggest that she falsely accused Bryant for financial gain, questioning her about a civil suit she filed this month and the nearly $20,000 she received earlier from a public victims compensation fund.

Besides the cross-examination, the defense can put on its own case. Several of the accuser's former friends and college classmates have been subpoenaed to testify that she has a history of lying. The defense has cataloged every statement the accuser made in the days after the alleged rape in search of discrepancies. Text messages exchanged with former boyfriend Matt Herr were subpoenaed.

"If she does a good job on the witness stand, the strongest way the defense can respond is by showing she is not truthful," Steinhauser said.

A key defense witness will be DNA expert Elizabeth Johnson, whose findings were detailed in transcripts of a June closed hearing made public after first being mistakenly e-mailed to several news organizations.

Johnson concluded that the woman had sex with someone other than Bryant in the 15 hours between the alleged rape and her medical exam. Sperm and semen from "Mr. X" were found in the accuser's vagina, on other parts of her body, and also on underwear she wore the day of the alleged rape and underwear she wore to her exam.

Johnson's results are supported by a DNA expert for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the agency that tested evidence for the prosecution.

Legal analysts expect the defense to call a rape trauma expert to say that engaging in sexual conduct so soon is not typical of someone who has been sexually assaulted.

Prosecutors will counter with an expert who says rape victims respond in different ways. They also will try to prove that the DNA evidence was tampered with and plan to call as witnesses several employees from CBI and two defense labs -- Technical Associates in Ventura and Reliagene in Lafayette, La.

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