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Tab's Running in the Bryant Case

Keeping up with the defense is costing the D.A. in Eagle County 10% of his budget.

August 29, 2004|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

EAGLE, Colo. — Kobe Bryant's ambitious defense strategy -- which challenges prosecutors at every turn -- is proving costly for the judicial district that brought a charge of felony sexual assault against him.

The Bryant case has accounted for more than 10% of Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert's $2.1-million annual budget, county records show. Eagle County has spent at least $230,000 on the proceedings -- with the total bill exceeding $325,000 when assistance from three other counties within the 5th Judicial District is included.

Bryant was arrested last summer after a woman told police he raped her.

The woman was an employee at an Edwards, Colo., resort where the Laker star had been a guest.

Bryant, 26, has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation plus a fine.

The number of legal motions so far in the case -- more than 700 -- is evidence of the steep opposition prosecutors face, experts said.

"One of the reasons you're seeing a lot of motions is because this case had addressed so many different, and difficult, legal issues," said Karen Steinhauser, a former Denver prosecutor who has been following the proceedings.

"You need expert testimony to combat the defense's expert testimony. You need to pay experts to conduct tests. You need a media person. You might have to go out of state to interview a witness. The more you do in an investigation, the more expensive it gets."

Concern that county taxpayers were backing an expensive loser peaked in the last month when prosecutors suffered several legal setbacks. Public scrutiny "is becoming a big issue for us," said Jack W. Ingstad, the county administrator and budget officer.

Hurlbert, who put together the legal team prosecuting Bryant, said the money had been well spent. "How do you put a price on defending somebody who's been hurt?" he said. "You can't put a price on that."

Budget limitations became apparent in a hearing Thursday when prosecutors said key DNA evidence had been contaminated by defense experts during testing.

Dana Easter, an assistant district attorney, said the prosecution wanted to question anyone at the two labs that handled the evidence. To that, Judge Terry Ruckriegle responded two ways.

First, he asked why prosecutors hadn't paid for their own DNA expert to supervise tests by the defense.

Easter's response: "I'm telling the court we have acted as well as we can.... We are doing the best we can on a very limited budget."

The judge also said that if prosecutors wanted to summon everyone who might have handled evidence, they should be ready to pay for travel and expenses.

Reacting to that instruction, Hurlbert and his assistants exchanged head-shaking looks of resignation.

The district attorney has been told in meetings with county leaders that no additional cash would be made available to him for this case.

Hurlbert's office received about $108,000 of special funding for the Bryant case from Eagle County in 2003, and the three other counties composing the 5th Judicial District contributed $188,952 for use specifically on the case this year, according to county records. Eagle County also gave its sheriff's department $30,000 to beef up security for Bryant hearing dates.

Law enforcement officials have yet to tally their extra costs, although the sheriff's department says the overtime it has paid is "extensive."

The Bryant case also added an undetermined workload to the district attorney's staff.

Hurlbert defended his handling of expenses, saying he hasn't requested additional funding for the Bryant case since the beginning of the year.

He insisted this week that prosecutors had not "cut corners" in retaining experts and conducting investigations necessary to build a case against Bryant.

"Everybody I talk to in the community is giving me great support," Hurlbert said.

Hurlbert is up for reelection in November. His opponent, Bruce Brown, said residents were watching the case closely.

"The people here are fiscally conservative; they look at budgets," Brown said. "If it looks like he pressed ahead for more money and he didn't have a solid case, that will result in further feelings that Mr. Hurlbert doesn't deserve to be elected."

At a shopping center in the Eagle County town of Avon, residents interviewed last week said they thought the cost already was excessive -- mostly because they don't think there's much of a case against Bryant.

"It takes far more of the budget than it should," said Rod Connolly, a resident of Edwards. "If this case hadn't been so high-profile, it would've been thrown out at the beginning."

But Connolly's friend, Charles Ross, had a different view: "If this case gets dismissed before trial, it's a waste of money. If it's strong enough to go to trial, then it's money well spent."

Ingstad said the idea that the case has put the county in financial straits is "a misconception."

"We spend close to $100 million annually in this county, and we are not continually giving money to this situation," he said.

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