EAGLE, Colo. — Fourteen months after a 19-year-old hotel worker accused basketball superstar Kobe Bryant of rape, the charges against him were suddenly dropped Wednesday, just days before his trial was to begin.
Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert said the prosecution could not proceed because the woman "has indicated her unwillingness to go forward."
In a sign that a potential settlement of the woman's civil action against Bryant could be in the works, the woman's attorney handed out a statement from Bryant in which he offered an apology for their encounter in a mountain resort.
"I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year," Bryant said in the three-paragraph statement. "Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure."
Bryant said he now understood "how she sincerely feels she did not consent to this encounter" and said he had paid the woman no money. The 26-year-old Laker star, however, indicated that her civil lawsuit would proceed and said it would "be decided by and between the parties involved."
The lurid case, which mixed celebrity, sex and race, attracted widespread attention because it involved one of the world's most popular sports figures. It also shadowed the Lakers, professional basketball's most-watched team, all last season. Had Bryant been convicted, the franchise would have been crippled. It also raised questions about the adequacy of laws designed to shield the sexual histories of rape victims from being introduced into evidence.
A clearly disappointed Hurlbert, whose case was plagued by inadvertent leaks, adverse rulings and weeks of speculation that the woman would refuse to cooperate, said: "Today justice is sadly interrupted. The casualty in this interruption has been a brave young woman who was grievously hurt."
Resolution of the criminal case, which Hurlbert said would not be refiled, ended long months of uncertainty for Bryant, who could have faced life in prison if convicted of felony sexual assault.
Bryant left the Eagle County courthouse Wednesday when the first phase of jury selection concluded shortly after noon. He was at his home in Newport Beach when the case was dismissed later in the day.
Word of the pending dismissal circulated at midafternoon in Eagle, eliciting a flurry of no-comments and meetings attended by Hurlbert and his staff, the accuser's civil attorneys and Bryant's defense lawyers.
After 5 p.m., the accuser's parents arrived at the Eagle County Justice Center and assistant prosecutor Dana Easter left the courtroom.
With a rueful look at her staff, Easter whispered: "We're going to file a motion to dismiss."
At 5:53 p.m., Judge Terry Ruckriegle entered the courtroom to preside over the unexpected final hearing in the case.
The courtroom was standing room only. Even the jury box was filled with reporters and onlookers from the prosecutor's office. The accuser's parents, who had faithfully attended proceedings, sat in the first row, red-eyed but not crying.
John Clune, one of the woman's lawyers, said the dropping of charges was not tied to a financial settlement.
"We have not even entered into a single discussion about money. The difficulties the case has imposed on the young woman are unimaginable," he said. "I could spend the next several hours explaining what she has gone through and not make a dent in it."
Ruckriegle, saying he believed the impact on the alleged victim was "very real," ended the 35-minute hearing by dismissing the case.
Three of the accuser's former high school classmates, who sat outside the courthouse, said they believed Bryant's version of the incident. Lindsay McKinney, who said she had lived with the accuser's family for several months last year, said: "I hope he doesn't end up giving her any money."
The alleged victim's parents did not speak to reporters Wednesday. The woman, who is now 20, stayed away and released no statement.
Harvard University criminal law expert Alan Dershowitz said Bryant's statement could be a first step in negotiations with the woman.
"It sounds like this is a phased negotiated settlement, and this was the first phase," Dershowitz said.
The sordid case began to unfold when the woman told Eagle County investigators that on June 30, 2003, Bryant raped her as he held her by her neck, despite protests and tears.
The woman told police that after the alleged attack, she promised Bryant she would not tell anyone what happened, cleaned up in the bathroom and left the hotel room.
Bryant was staying at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera before having knee surgery. He was interviewed by investigators the day after the alleged attack and voluntarily gave a DNA sample.