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THE KOBE BRYANT CASE

Case Showed Cracks Early, Experts Say

Mistakes and legal rulings eroded the prosecution effort from the start, analysts add.

September 02, 2004|Lance Pugmire and David Wharton | Times Staff Writers

EAGLE, Colo. — It was a case that showed cracks from the start, legal analysts say -- the day that prosecutors announced they were filing sexual assault charges against Kobe Bryant.

As Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert stood before reporters on July 18, 2003, experts saw a man who appeared unsure of himself.

"He was tentative, hesitant," said Karen Steinhauser, a Denver law professor who has followed the case. "And if you come across like that, how do you expect your case to be perceived?"

On Wednesday -- more than a year after that unpersuasive beginning, and days before opening statements were scheduled -- the case against Bryant fell apart, with Judge Terry Ruckriegle granting the prosecution's motion to dismiss all charges against the Laker star.

Hurlbert said the request was based on the victim's sudden decision not to testify. But experts cited a progression of miscues and legal defeats that crippled prosecutors' efforts.

"For weeks, for months, you saw the flags being raised," said Craig Silverman, a former prosecutor in Denver.

Bryant, 26, had pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault stemming from a June 30, 2003, encounter with the woman at a mountain resort. She was 19 at the time. He has maintained that they had consensual sex.

After Bryant's arrest was announced on July 6, almost two weeks passed as Hurlbert considered the merits of the case. At one point, he said: "It's possible he could be charged with sexual assault, it's possible he could not be charged with anything. It's possible he could be charged with something else."

Analysts detected a lack of communication between Hurlbert and Eagle County Sheriff Joseph Hoy.

In another early setback, the court inadvertently posted the woman's name and address on a state website in September 2003.

Her attorneys would later cite that and other inadvertent releases of confidential information to explain why she grew hesitant to cooperate with the prosecution.

As the case progressed into the fall, legal experts expected Bryant's attorneys to waive a preliminary hearing and spare their high-profile client the embarrassment of evidence being introduced in open court.

Instead, Bryant's team used the hearing to expose what they perceived as flaws in the prosecution's case.

They criticized the police search of Bryant's hotel room as sloppy and incomplete. More important, they raised questions about the accuser's sexual activity around the time of the encounter.

When Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett ruled that Bryant must stand trial, he included a caveat.

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

It was, experts said, the beginning of the end.

"I sat through the preliminary hearing and could not believe what a weak case it was," Silverman said. "After that, it only got weaker."

In a subsequent closed hearing, a DNA expert testified that the accuser had another man's semen on her thigh and inside her vagina during her medical examination.

It was noted that a physical exam of Bryant after the incident produced no indication of a second man's DNA, leading the expert to say that she believed that the accuser had sex with the other man, referred to in court records as "Mr. X," in the hours after she was with Bryant.

This theory called into question whether the woman had lied during her testimony in an earlier hearing. She said that she had sex only once in the days surrounding the Bryant incident, and that the other man wore a condom.

Prosecutors had expected the existence of "Mr. X" to be kept secret -- and kept out of open court -- under Colorado's rape shield laws. But a court reporter inadvertently e-mailed transcripts of the DNA expert's testimony to reporters in late June.

It was shortly thereafter that Hurlbert, citing his workload in other cases, announced that he would no longer serve as lead prosecutor.

"Not a wise move," Steinhauser said. "The public perception is that you don't believe in [the case] anymore."

The crowning blow, experts said, came July 23, when Ruckriegle decided to admit the "Mr. X" evidence, as well as the accuser's sexual history with two key witnesses.

From that point, the prosecution and accuser launched what Silverman and other analysts described as an exit strategy.

Just weeks before trial, prosecutors asked the judge for an indefinite continuance, saying that the release of the sealed testimony had tainted the jury pool. They also appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, arguing that the woman's sexual history should not be admissible as evidence. Both moves were seen as desperate and given little chance to succeed.

Meanwhile, the accuser filed a civil suit against Bryant for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages. Experts said that move hurt the prosecution because it would have allowed the defense to tell jurors that she was seeking money.

As late as Wednesday morning, Bryant's attorneys were still chipping away. In a motion filed with the court, they asserted that a prosecution expert hired to examine the accuser had said that marks on her body were not necessarily evidence of nonconsensual sex.

With the defense asking for an immediate dismissal, Hurlbert brought the case to an abrupt end hours later.

"Prosecutors just did not have the proof they needed," Silverman said. "This was a dream come true for Kobe's lawyers."

*

Pugmire reported from Eagle, Colo., and Wharton from Los Angeles.

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