Bryant case raises thorny issues
Whether or not to let the public and press to hear testimony from witnesses during hearings in the Kobe Bryant rape case is a balancing act between the rights of the press and the rights of the victim and the defendant, the judge overseeing the case said Friday at a pretrial hearing.
District Judge Terry Ruckriegle said that very little law, if any, exists to help him rule on whether the public and press should be allowed to be in the courtroom when witnesses subpoenaed by Bryant’s defense attorneys testify.
“I have found nothing that balances the media’s rights versus the victim’s rights,” said Ruckriegle.
Bryant, 25, returned Friday morning to Eagle County for the first of two scheduled motions hearings before his trial on a felony sexual assault charge that could send him to prison for up to the rest of his life. He is accused of raping a 19-year-old front desk employee of the Lodge at Cordillera in his room there June 30. He says the two had consensual sex.
The media horde was thinned somewhat by the Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson cases. The crisp morning temperatures eliminated the usual throng of those gathered to cheer and jeer at Bryant as he stepped from a Chevy Suburban for the quick walk into the Eagle County courthouse.
No one was there. Not even anyone from the press gathered outside the courthouse shouted questions at the Los Angeles Lakers star as he walked inside.
Bryant, at 6-6 towering above everyone else, silently walked through the metal detector that everyone had to pass through to enter the courthouse.
His only metallic object was a small cross on a simple band, which he softly placed in a plastic tray as he stepped slowly through the metal detector.
Not far behind him were the nine people subpoenaed by Bryant’s defense attorneys to testify, at least as obvious by the small, white “WITNESS” cards hanging around their necks.
One was away from her husband, who had just had surgery. Another was forced to cancel a non-refundable plane trip home for Christmas vacation from college. All looked like they’d rather be anywhere else on that stunningly clear, cold morning.
As it turned out, none had to take the stand Friday. But they most assuredly will in a few short weeks.
Bryant himself had other places he’d rather be. About the time he was walking into the courthouse, his Lakers teammates would be having a shootaround to prepare for Friday night’s game against the Denver Nuggets back in Los Angeles.
Public vs. private
Prosecutors, Bryant’s defense attorneys and the attorney for the alleged victim and her family are pushing to close the parts of the hearing that would deal with the alleged victim’s medical history and any conversations with counselors.
Attorneys for media organizations asked that everything remain open.
Ruckriegle said trial courts must usually make rulings in a matter of seconds, or perhaps minutes. He said he once took as long as an hour.
This one will take weeks.
Ruckriegle ordered attorneys for both sides to provide written briefs supporting their positions for his review. It will take at least 21 days for him to hand down his decision, he said.
In the meantime, after the press and public were shooed out of the courtroom Friday afternoon, Ruckriegle and the attorneys met to discuss those nine witnesses and what their testimony would be.
“To the untrained eye it might seem these are issues not important enough to warrant attention,” Ruckriegle said. “To the court they are of the utmost importance.”
Defense co-counsel Hal Haddon said they have nine witnesses ready to testify. Those witnesses include the alleged victim’s mother and several acquaintances from her Eagle home and Greeley, where she attended college last school year. All those witnesses will be back to testify during the next motions hearing, Jan. 23, whether or not the public is allowed to be present.
Haddon said Bryant’s defense team had no problems with closing the hearing during the testimony.
Prosecutor Ingrid Bakke said the District Attorney’s Office didn’t know until Friday what information the defense attorneys were seeking but that during a pre-hearing conference the defense alluded to medical records, as well as 911 tapes the defense wanted to play for the court. The defense obtained those tapes from the Vail dispatch center.
Bakke said the information expected to be gleaned from those witnesses is not relevant and should not be allowed at all, let alone testified to during open court with the public and press present.
Attorney John Clune, who represents the alleged victim and her family, said the issue about closing the court for testimony revolves around the alleged victim’s privacy, as well as the right to a fair trial for both Bryant and the alleged victim.
“These are sensitive issues, and they don’t need to be discussed in open court, let alone on the national news for the next three days,” said Clune.
The issue centers on whether conversations the alleged victim might have had about medical conditions with friends and family later become public because she might have violated patient-doctor privilege by discussing the conditions with someone who was not providing professional care.
“To say that information out there because of an interview or statement should be public knowledge is incredulous,” said Clune. “People don’t know my client well. There are rumors that she is weakening. That’s not the case. She is stronger than anyone knows.”
Teeing it up again
Bryant’s defense attorneys want the names of everyone who ordered a T-shirt based on the children’s game Hangman, from hangmantees.com.
The District Attorney’s Office, after refusing for weeks to provide it, put together a list of five people. According to prosecutors, the shirts were originally supposed to be free, and the money donated to a battered women’s shelter. When they learned they’d have to pay for them, they called the deal off.
Not good enough, said Bryant’s lead defense attorney, Pamela Mackey. She wants the entire list, saying it points to bias by the people who are investigating the case.
Ruckriegle cautioned about letting this issue, and others like it, become a sideshow that detracts from the issues at hand.
“It will have no effect on the trial, but it reflects poor judgment and inexperience by these government agencies,” said local defense attorney David Lugert, a former federal and state prosecutor. “The District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office should never have let this happen.
“I don’t think it shows bias. I think it shows inexperience.”
District Attorney Mark Hurlbert was given a free T-shirt, which he soon destroyed. Deputy District Attorney Gregg Critteneden got rid of his shirt Thursday, according to prosecutor Dana Easter.
Easter finally agreed to question each investigator to determine who might have ordered a T-shirt.