Judge rolls back order nine days before jury selection in Kobe
After operating 13 days under a strict and controversial gag order, the judge in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case Wednesday rolled back the scope of that order.
It’s one of the last pretrial rulings that will pave the way for the criminal trial against Bryant, scheduled to begin with jury selection Aug. 27 and opening arguments Sept. 7.
“This isn’t related to what goes on inside the courts,” said Steven Zansberg, an attorney who appealed the ruling for the media. “It’s about what goes on outside the court. It signifies the court remains concerned about a barrage of press statements by attorneys involved in the case.”
The imposition of the gag order Aug. 4 was appealed by the media, the prosecution and the alleged victim’s attorneys on the grounds that it was overly broad and among other things, restricted their constitutional right to free speech. They also argued that the judge imposed the order without a hearing or accepting briefs.
Ruckriegle scaled the gag order back to restrictions on comments that typically bind lawyers and court officials in any court case, though he added a provision restricting comments by all witnesses, too.
“That affects dozens of people and family members,” said David Lugert, an Eagle-based attorney who is a former prosecutor and works as a media analyst for the case.
Ruckriegle also prohibited lawyers in the case from discussing the concepts of “fairness” or “prejudice” publicly.
“He felt the touchstone of fairness and prejudice were being abused by each side of the case,” Lugert said. “He wishes them to refrain from discussing it so it doesn’t inflame the jury pool.”
That jury pool, consisting of 999 Eagle County residents, will be answering up to 100 questions from the prosecution and defense that will be used to judge their suitability for serving on the jury.
“I think this is the last of the major hurdles an points of disagreement,” Lugert said. “At this point, all sides are now going to be streamlining their case and focusing on the trial.
One major decision for the judge is whether the jury will be sequestered ” ordered into seclusion ” for the course of the trial, estimated to last about five weeks.
The gag order was requested by Bryant’s defense team after a round of television interviews a couple of weeks ago by the alleged victim’s private attorneys, who then filed a lawsuit in federal court against Bryant. Among their complaints about the handling of the criminal case was the inadvertent release to seven media outlets of transcripts from a private hearing that contained detailed DNA testimony by a defense expert witness but none by a prosecution expert. The judge later edited the transcripts and released them to the public.
Bryant’s defense attorneys claimed that the pretrial publicity would make it impossible to field an impartial jury in Eagle County and sought the gag order.
“The accuser’s attorney’s have thrown fair trial concerns to the wind and opened a media campaign designed to poison the jury pool and prejudice Mr. Bryant,” wrote Hal Haddon, one of Bryant’s attorneys.
Ruckriegle also was the target of a letter from the alleged victim’s father, who in a letter made public was critical of the judge’s pretrial rulings and the court mistakes releasing his daughter’s name and making private information public, saying they favored Bryant and were harmful to his daughter.
John Clune, the alleged victim’s private attorney since shortly after Bryant was charged, said Wednesday he was glad to see the gag order loosened.
“We are glad to see this judge acknowledge our right to respond to adverse publicity harmful to this young girl,” he said. “We will continue to do so consistent with his order.”
Ruckriegle did include a new provision in the gag order restricting comments critical of the effectiveness of the judicial system.
“One could argue that it’s somewhat insulating him from public criticism,” Lugert said. “But he made it clear he did not wish to stem legitimate criticisms of the court.”
Bryant is accused of raping the then-19-year-old employee of the Lodge at Cordillera June 30, 2003, after inviting her to his room. He was in town for knee surgery at the Steadman Hawkins clinic. Bryant has said they engaged in consensual sex.
Bryant, an NBA player with the Lost Angeles Lakers, faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000 if convicted.
Zansberg said gag orders are becoming increasingly common as cases get closer to trial.
“What this order does and what the previous order did is remind attorneys of their ethical obligation under the rules of professional conduct,” Zansberg said.
Sealed filings that don’t need to be sealed from public view also prompted Ruckriegle to caution the parties in the Bryant case to use caution in deciding what to submit as sealed.
“It’s apparent that some of these pleadings are not appropriate to have been filed under seal,” Ruckriegle wrote Wednesday. “It is particularly burdensome on the personnel of the court and the state court administrator to process such placings under seal when it is not necessary to do so.”
Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or firstname.lastname@example.org