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Handling of Brant Case May Cost D.A. at the Polls

September 03, 2004|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

EAGLE, Colo. — Mark Hurlbert, the prosecutor who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing a case against Laker star Kobe Bryant before dismissing it, may pay dearly for his decision at the polls this November.

Hurlbert, 35, is up for reelection as district attorney for the 5th Judicial District of Colorado. His opponent is already calling the case a "debacle," while others describe it as a "train wreck." The rape case against Bryant was dropped Wednesday after three days of jury selection.

"I think what you have is a demonstration of a complete lack of judgment in bringing cases to trial," said Bruce Brown, an attorney running against Hurlbert. "The prosecution spent almost half a million dollars and didn't even call their first witness. The evidence indicated this case should have been dismissed months ago."

Brown, an Encino native, outlined Thursday what he believed were missteps by the district attorney. They included Hurlbert's decision to turn over day-to-day workings of the case to his staff, the missing of filing deadlines and the release of the accuser's medical records to the defense.

Yet even those without a partisan agenda believe the case has tarnished Hurlbert.

"He should be held accountable," said former Denver prosecutor Craig Silverman. "If it's a matter of his youth, then he needs to take a trip back to the minor leagues. This case has been an unmitigated disaster for him." Hurlbert could not be reached for comment.

Larry Pozner, former head of the National Assn. of Criminal Defense Lawyers, was equally tough.

"This case is the definition of death without dignity. They waved the white flag of surrender," he said. "That's not what prosecutors do, and I don't think Hurlbert will be reelected. It's sad, because Mark is a thoroughly decent guy who got sucked into this case."

Hurlbert, appointed in 2002 after the previous district attorney took another job, comes from the tiny mountain town of Dillon. After a respectable record of convictions in Eagle County, the Dartmouth graduate found himself at the center of the Bryant case 14 months ago. His opponents, Hal Haddon and Pamela Mackey, were high-priced, high-powered Denver defense attorneys with reputations for being aggressive.

Hurlbert was just the opposite. He was known for his caution, for not bringing charges unless he was sure he could win a case.

In an interview last year, Hurlbert said, "Certainly I want to be cautious. It is a serious action to charge anybody with a felony."

He said, however, that he would not fail to enforce justice.

"But I have to feel confident I can win it," he said. "I have an ethical obligation that, before filing a charge, I must believe I can prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt."

On Wednesday, Hurlbert said there was enough evidence to pursue the Bryant case but he dismissed it because the accuser did not wish to go forward. A civil suit filed by the accuser last month is pending.

"Today, justice is sadly interrupted," Hurlbert said.

Judge Terry Ruckriegle, who presided over the Bryant case and is up for reappointment in November, may also be thinking politics when he said Thursday that a series of embarrassing courthouse mistakes, including the release of the accuser's name, were the result of spending cuts that had reduced staff and increased workload.

He said the case should serve as "Exhibit A" in the argument against slashing court system budgets.

"This is a nationwide problem," he said. "This is no longer a potential impact, it's a very real impact. I take full responsibility for those errors. We had no idea those mistakes would be under such a microscope and be disseminated instantly around the world."

The Bryant case has accounted for 10% of Hurlbert's $2.1-million annual budget. Eagle County has spent $230,000. That amount rises to $325,000 when the contributions of the other three counties in the judicial district are figured in.

Eagle County commissioners declined to comment on the expense or on Hurlbert.

"We made a decision a long time ago not to be personally involved in this case," said Jack Ingstad, Eagle County administrator and budget officer. "These officials are elected, and they have to make tough decisions, and the citizens in the end will decide what they think of it."

Don Rogers, managing editor of the Vail Daily, a newspaper covering Eagle County, said Hurlbert had been "grievously wounded" by the case.

"Bruce Brown has put his hat into the ring, I suspect, partly because he felt the prosecution wasn't up to this case," Rogers said. "But Brown is from L.A., and I think Mark will get Brownie points for being a local boy."

Bruce Carey, an Eagle County defense attorney who has known Hurlbert for 10 years, said the district attorney was hurt, but not fatally.

"It may have negative consequences for him because of the cost of preparing the case and then having it dismissed," Carey said. "This case didn't go well, but this is one of thousands of cases that are processed by the D.A.'s office each year. To judge him solely on this is unfair."

Helping Hurlbert is the fact that he is a Republican in a largely conservative region. Brown is a Democrat. Also, the district attorney's race has been very low-profile.

"Brown isn't really exploiting the issue," Carey said. "He is not a presence on people's minds."

Eagle County Sheriff Joseph Hoy, whose deputies arrested Bryant in June 2003, defended Hurlbert on Thursday.

"This will probably be an issue for Mark's opponent, but I don't think it will hurt his chances," Hoy said. "This is one case in many. I think the people realize what kind of pressure he was under."

As for his own reelection prospects in 2006, Hoy was philosophical.

"For me? That's up to the folks."

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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