DA says he has strong case
The title of District Attorney Mark Hurlbert’s Friday court filing said it all:”The People of the State of Colorado Against Kobe Bean Bryant” – the toughest match-up he’s ever had.And for the foreseeable future, Bryant’s number will go well beyond the “8” on his Lakers jersey.Case number 03CR204, filed in district court.Bryant was charged Friday with one count of felony sexual assault, a Class 3 felony. For it to be a Class 3 felony, Colorado law requires there to be sexual penetration and physical force.When Hurlbert told the gathered media and curiosity seekers that Bryant’s sentence could be as much as life in prison, the rarefied air in Eagle practically became a vacuum from the gasps. The sentences run thusly: probation, 20 years to life; prison, four years to life.”I have an ethical burden not to prosecute unless I can prove my case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hurlbert told the crowd of several hundred people during a press conference in front of the Eagle County Justice Center. “I believe I can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”Hurlbert asked the media to continue to respect the victim’s privacy.”It has been difficult for her, and she will not talk to the media.”Bryant claims innocenceIn a press conference Friday evening at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Bryant tearfully declared his innocence.”I am innocent of the charges filed today,” Bryant said. “I did not assault the woman who is accusing me. I made the mistake of adultery. I have to answer to my wife and my God for my actions that night and I pray that both will forgive me.”Bryant’s attorney, Pamela Mackey, said he will plead innocent. Mackey said the defense will be that the sexual encounter was “between two consenting adults.”Bryant’s wife, Vanessa, said she supports her husband.”I know that my husband has made a mistake – the mistake of adultery,” she said. “He and I will have to deal with that within our marriage, and we will do so. He is not a criminal. I know that he did not commit a crime, he did not assault anyone. He is a loving and kind husband and father. I believe in his innocence. Because I know him to be innocent, I will stand by him and we will face this together.”For the past two weeks, television trucks with satellite dishes have popped up in the Justice Center parking lot like portable oak trees, packing the lot on Friday. Reporters interviewed experts, local residents and each other as they provided live feeds all day leading up to the press conference, and late into the night afterward.Journalists have cruised the quiet cul-de-sac where the alleged victim lives for almost a week and a half. Occasionally one walks to the front door and rings the doorbell, only to be politely told by family members that they’ll have direct their questions to the district attorney.Bryant’s returnHurlbert said Bryant must come to Eagle County on Aug. 6 to be advised of his rights.Friday’s charges stem from a June 30 incident in which Bryant allegedly sexually assaulted a 19-year-old Eagle woman at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, where he stayed while having knee surgery at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic.”The decision did not come easily,” Hurlbert said. “With any felony, it’s a difficult decision and I take it seriously.”Bryant insisted the sex was consensual.”Nothing that happened June 30th was against the will of the woman who now falsely accuses me,” said Bryant. “These false allegations have hurt my family. I will fight against these allegations with all my strength. My wife is the strongest person I know. She is willing to stand by me despite my mistake.”Burden of proofHurlbert said the standards of proof are no different in Bryant’s case than in any other.”We’re going to treat it like any other sexual assault case, even though I’m saying that while I’m looking at 20 television cameras,” said Hurlbert. “In any case you look at everything, physical evidence, testimony, everything.”Hurlbert said he examined all the evidence and conferred with colleagues all over the state before reaching the decision he announced Friday.”Any sexual assault case is difficult,” Hurlbert said. “The overriding goal is justice.”When asked about moving the trial to another location, Hurlbert said he’d try to keep it here in Eagle County.”The crime occurred in Eagle County, and the people of Eagle County have a right to hear it.As an assistant district attorney, Hurlbert won a second-degree murder conviction in 2002 against Chuck Garrison, accused of killing his wife and burying her body in his yard.Sheriff in lineEagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy said he had mixed emotions about Friday’s announcement.”We’re pleased with what the district attorney did, but that doesn’t mean we’re celebrating,” said Hoy. “Who wants this?!? No one wants this.”Hoy said the alleged victim and her family are “standing tall.””I think I understand she’s in for a rough ride,” said Hoy. “The investigators indicated something like this could be tough.”Hoy said Friday’s announcement is a testimony to “our effective system of law enforcement.””I am proud that the people in this Sheriff’s Office have carried out their responsibility professionally, reflecting their many years of experience,” said Hoy.Hoy reiterated that his decision to issue a warrant for Bryant’s arrest on July 4, instead of waiting until July 7 as Hurlbert and Bryant’s attorneys had agreed, did not indicate a rift between him and Hurlbert, but was simply a miscommunication.”I am confident that Mark Hurlbert and the people in his office have made the appropriate decision,” said Hoy.Big numbersThe Lakers have extended a $55 million contract extension to Bryant. He also signed a $45 million endorsement deal with Nike. His endorsement income is estimated to be $10 million to $12 million a year.”I have so much to live for. And by that I do not mean the contracts, or the money, or the fame. I mean my family. I will fight for them,” said Bryant. “I appreciate all those who have supported me. Thank you for believing in me. My family and I are going to need your support and prayers now more than ever.”The case has riveted the sports world for nearly two weeks because it involves one of the NBA’s most magnetic stars. The case also raises questions about Bryant’s summer plans and whether he will be able to play with the U.S. Olympic qualifying team, which begins practice Aug. 10 in New York.The Lakers start practice in October for the 2003-04 season.”Naturally, we’re disappointed with today’s announcement,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said. “While there are many questions concerning this issue, we will wait for time and the judicial process to answer them.”NBA Commissioner David Stern had no comment.Loyola University law school professor Laurie Levenson said if the case goes to trial, a jury might feel a personal connection to Bryant, just as they did in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.”As a celebrity he comes in with a super presumption of innocence,” she said. “Any defendant whom the public knows by his first name, their reaction is, ‘No, not Kobe.’ You will come in with jurors thinking, ‘We don’t want him to have done it.”’Sports marketing experts said the case will be a permanent blow to Bryant’s image and could cost him millions in lost endorsements.””The image was of a perfect role model, a superstar athlete who didn’t have a parking ticket, the all-American boy and now, well, that image is tarnished,” said Bob Williams, chief executive of Burns Sports & Celebrities Inc. in Evanston, Ill.””As of today and until the trial, his image is going to take a beating.”Last fall, Williams’ firm commissioned a poll that listed Bryant as the third-best product endorser in sports, behind Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan.Bryant married Vanessa Laine in April 2001. The two met on the set of a music video where Laine was working, and got engaged while she was still in high school. Vanessa gave birth to their first child, Natalia Diamante Bryant, in January.