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Anatomy of a failed case

Don Rogers

The prosecution has failed The People by quitting the rape case against Kobe Bryant at the 11th hour.Still claiming Wednesday evening that he had a “great case” against Bryant, District Attorney Mark Hurlbert laid the blame for what has all too clearly been a waste of hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars and 14 months of court time on the most fragile person in this entire travesty.Suddenly the alleged victim could not bring herself to follow through with the trial, and for that reason only he was dropping the case, he explained at his press conference after the judge dismissed the charges and said they could not be refiled. Hurlbert seems to have completely forgotten his role in this community. If he truly believes he has a strong case, which by cold-blooded logic means he thinks that Bryant indeed raped the young woman, he is duty-bound to do his best to protect society from a violent criminal. With the alleged victim’s willing participation or not.But if this case truly rested on the whims of the alleged victim about willingly testifying, the DA never had a case worthy of bringing to a jury.Sadly, this outcome was all too predictable, especially when the young woman’s attorneys rather remarkably filed a lawsuit in federal court against Kobe Bryant weeks before the criminal trial. Remarkable because it undermined the prosecution, hurt the woman’s public image even more, and gave the defense more fodder to use in the criminal trial that observers widely doubted would come to pass. By all appearances, the alleged victim’s private attorneys played the prosecutors like pawns in a bigger contest. The landscape changed weeks ago from being all about justice to being all about the money.Still, the prosecutors soldiered on, making strong but ultimately empty statements through their spokeswoman about the alleged victim’s determination to testify and see this through. She has endured a lot. Kobe Bryant’s fawning public has been scathing at best, potentially murderous at worst. So many of them – though not all – frankly have been despicable. What an indictment of America’s fascination with celebrity. Solid rulingsThe judges, County Court Judge Fred Gannett and District Judge Terry Ruckriegle, actually performed admirably. The grand sweep of the rulings fit common sense and fairness to that bygone principle of justice for all. Judge Gannett gave the prosecutors the gift of expressing to them the paucity of their evidence at the preliminary hearing while passing the case to the trial court. We do still suspect that had the defendant not been an internationally famous celebrity, this thing would have stopped cold in county court.Judge Ruckriegle, for his part, frankly fumbled enough with a First Amendment question that the U.S. Supreme Court had to nudge him back in the right direction. Other than that, his rulings struck us lay folk and most legal experts as spot on. He correctly ruled that rape shield law protected her from jury scrutiny of her general sexual history, but evidence of sex with other men in a 72-hour period before her rape examination could be brought up. The difference between the two is that the DNA evidence in those 72 hours offered alternatives to the cause of her light injuries, and more significantly, suggested she may not have been completely truthful with investigators about not having sex with anyone other than Bryant in that time period. If that direct evidence had been left out of the trial, the prosecutors would have argued their case based in part on the profound lie that only Bryant could have caused those injuries. And if the prosecution did not have compelling answers for this evidence, they had no business filing charges in the first place.Of course, now all that will remain a mystery, unless by some rare stroke of fate there actually is a civil trial. Denied her dayFor as courageous and resolute as the prosecutors portrayed the alleged victim, it didn’t take much in the end for her to duck the trial.A leak to a CBS network reporter of the jury questionnaire with her name on it and 120 names of potential jurors was reported to be the last straw. The questionnaire had to have her name so that potential jurors could tell whether they knew her to answer some of the questions. But it’s well established that the news media are not reporting her name, which has been an open secret that anyone with access to the Internet could find in minutes ever since the first week after Bryant’s arrest. This appeared to be much more of an excuse to quit the criminal proceedings than anything particularly devastating. Those court leaks of her name and private hearing transcripts had trickled out long ago.More devastating to her reputation is that she will not have her day in criminal court to show who she really is and what she says happened to her. This consequence will linger, no matter how many talk show interviews she winds up giving or even if she takes the stand in a civil trial.Convicted rapists go to jail, where they belong. That’s justice. The rest is just so many fancy words, and maybe a handsome settlement if Bryant is of mind to buy his way out of this embarrassment. With his new $136 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s safe to assume he can spare a few million to let these questions hang. SettlementA big clue about progress toward a settlement was the zany moment Wednesday when the alleged victim’s private attorney Lin Wood handed out Kobe Bryant’s statement apologizing to her and everyone including the citizens of Eagle, Colo., for what his admitted adultery within the hour of meeting her has wrought.The lawyers had wrangled over the apology for perhaps as long as weeks. Classy as it was, you can bet it wasn’t written by Bryant. That is, unless you believe the basketball player now says things like “After months of reviewing discovery, I now understand. …” Yeah, right. This is all part of a lawyers’ dance to a new tune that now cuts out the prosecutors. At least the skill level of the attorneys arguing her case from here will rise significantly.Election ramificationsIt just so happens that the district attorney and the trial judge are up for election Nov. 2. What fallout can we expect from this case that was fumbled from the beginning, when the new sheriff irrationally let Bryant fly home July 2 after his interrogation but then had him secretly arrested two days later on Independence Day – before the district attorney had begun weighing whether there even was a case.The DA filed his sexual assault charge two weeks later, but before he had all his evidence or understood how the alleged victim’s difficulties in life might complicate his case. When a DNA investigator from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation – an arm of prosecutors – is prepared to testify for the defense, you have to know the case has gone “Alice in Wonderland” on you.At the core of the incident were no witnesses who saw it happen, along with a young woman who sneaked to the basketball star’s room late at night and acknowledged kissing him before the experience turned sour. He says the whole interlude was consensual. No doubt it’s frustrating at times that in America we don’t throw people in prison at the mere word of an accuser. The high bar is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Sadly, there was plenty of doubt early with this one. The sheriff did the victim and her family no favors by rushing the media circus to town, and the district attorney appears to have made serious judgment errors in pursuing a case he couldn’t even get in front of a jury, as it turned out.Now the voters of the 5th Judicial District, particularly in Eagle County, have a serious judgment of their own to make about the quality of prosecution we should be able to expect in the future.Chief District Judge Terry Ruckriegle is also up for re-election this fall. While he generally kept this case on track and ruled capably on most facets, he does bear responsibility for a court employee e-mailing transcripts from a private hearing on DNA evidence to seven media outlets. That error was grievous, although the information that eventually was made public had all been admitted into the trial.The state court system, which twice posted the alleged victim’s name briefly on its Web site, as well as a sealed document about Kobe Bryant’s rape exam results, has its own issues to confront. These mistakes, along with the sheriff’s rash arrest and DA pushing along a weak case that boils down to he said-she said, earned the gathering disgust of an onlooking nation. “Mayberry,” one LA Times columnist called Eagle County’s justice system Thursday.We think Eagle County – in truth a wealthy, sophisticated and well-educated enclave in comparison to “normal” America – can do better than this. But that will be up to the voters.What will have to doThe justice in this case for Kobe Bryant will have to be poetic. The image of the “squeaky clean” NBA star fit for McDonald’s commercials has been proven a lie. There’s little need to feel too sympathetic for Bryant, in Mayberry or elsewhere. Meantime, let’s hope for the DA’s sake that Bryant at root is not truly a thug capable of doing what he was accused of doing ever again.Vail, Colorado


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