Shield is lifting as alleged victim takes the stand
If Kobe Bryant’s alleged victim has some sexual history that’s important to this case, District Judge Terry Ruckriegle wants to know what it is.
If she doesn’t, Ruckriegle wants to know that, too.
Today, he’ll begin to find out.
The woman Bryant is accused to raping last summer is expected to make her first court appearance today or tomorrow. Among other things, she’ll testify about some of her sexual history in the days surrounding the June 30 event.
What the young woman says during private questioning by Bryant’s defense attorney Pamela Mackey, and by District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, will help Ruckriegle decide whether the jury will hear that information as it decides either set Bryant free, or send him to prison.
Although Ruckriegle’s decision not to limit the scope of questioning sparked an outcry among women’s advocacy groups, local attorney Rohn Robbins said judges would rather lean toward hearing too much testimony than too little.
“After he has heard as much as possible, he’ll decide what’s relevant and what’s not – what the jury gets to hear when deciding Bryant’s guilt or innocence,” said Robbins.
To get to that level of information, Robbins said Ruckriegle, and most other judges, would suffer the slings and arrows of public outcry if it meant getting to the heart of the matter.
The defense says the heart of the matter is the alleged victim’s credibility, and whether or not her injuries could have been caused by having sex with multiple partners over a course of three days – contentions the prosecution says are irrelevant. Prosecutors fought to limit defense questioning, but were shot down by the Colorado Supreme Court.
For their part, the prosecution says the heart of the matter is the physical evidence they say will lead to convicting Bryant – evidence the defense wants thrown out.
Ruckriegle will hear the evidence, make a decision and apply the law.
Rape shield the issue
Denver Public Defender David Kaplan said Colorado’s rape shield law protects both the accused and the accuser. The law prohibits defense attorneys from bringing up information about an alleged victim’s sex life.
“The statute creates a tension between legitimately protecting the privacy rights of an alleged victim against the very important value of having evidence relevant to the defense be provided to the jury,” said Kaplan.
Pam Russell, public information officer with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office, said it’s a tough balancing act.
“The rape shield laws were designed because these kinds of cases were believed by many to be one person’s word against another,” said Russell. “They’re part of our journey to protect the victim while we’re trying to protect the rights of the accused.”
The publicity, while painful for the alleged victim, could come to something positive for other rape victims, said Karen Steinhauser, a former prosecutor and professor at the University of Denver School of Law. According to a 1992 study, almost 80 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported.
“I hope people see this as a system that, yes, is difficult on victims, but if it happened the way she says it happened, it’s wrong, it’s a crime and people need to be held accountable for that,” Steinhauser told the Associated Press.
Kaplan said the protections of the statute are being employed to keep the victim from accusations that are not relevant, but also to protect the defendant if the information they seek to introduce is relevant.
Those advocating an alleged victim should not be required to testify under any circumstances are are overlooking appropriate protection for both sides, he said.
“The law seems like a fair compromise between the rights of the victim and the rights of the accused,” said Kaplan. “Without it, you could end up with a defendant found guilty because relevant evidence has not been introduced.
People should not be trying to utilize the statute to keep evidence from the jury that would inhibit anyone’s right to a fair trial.”
How common is it?
Rape shield evidence hearings are a fairly common defense tactic used in sexual assault cases involving adult victims, said Anne Munch of the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office.
“It’s one of the few instances in law where there is a presumption of irrelevance,” said Munch. “Previous sexual conduct is considered irrelevant. The court can inquire as to whether certain things are irrelevant. At that point, it’s not uncommon for the court to bring in a victim and ask them about it.”
Kaplan said if defense attorneys convince the judge that the accuser should be called to testify, then the accuser should be called.
“You want to get at what’s relevant to the fact finder, and that’s the jury,” said Kaplan. “If someone had sex earlier three years, everyone will ask the same question – why should that brought up? But they don’t want to exclude evidence if it’s relevant. Information has to be relevant for both sides.”
“At some point, people in the courtroom look around at each other and say, ‘Don’t you think a jury should hear some of this stuff?'”
Randy Wyrick is the Vail Daily’s Assistant Managing Editor. Contact him at 970-949-055. ext. 615, firstname.lastname@example.org.
AT A GLANCE
Motions hearings in the Kobe Bryant case continue Wednesday and Thursday, all in private sessions. Bryant is required to attend.
What they’ll cover
– Rape shield evidence hearing, with all witnesses testifying in private. Witnesses will discuss the alleged victim’s sexual history around the time of the June 30 incident. Defense attorneys have said her injuries could have been caused by having sex with three men in three days. Prosecutors will argue to narrow the evidence to just the night of the incident, June 30.
– Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence collected by detectives when they questioned Bryant. That evidence consists of the clothing Bryant was wearing, including a T-shirt stained with spots of the alleged victim’s blood, and a tape recorded interview between Bryant and two Eagle County sheriff’s detectives. Bryant’s attorneys have asked that the evidence be thrown out because they say Bryant believed he was under arrest without be read his Miranda rights. Investigators say they made it clear to Bryant he was not under arrest, and that Bryant cooperated voluntarily.
It is possible that before the matter is settled, Bryant will take the stand.
Who will testify:
– The alleged victim. This is her first court appearance. It is also the first time, other than television, she will have seen Kobe Bryant, the man she is accusing of raping her. She was required to testify after being subpoenaed by Bryant’s defense attorneys. She will likely be questioned about everything allowed under the state’s rape shield law. Judge Ruckriegle denied a late prosecution request to limit the scope of questioning she’ll face.
Unlike some of the other hearings, her family members will not be allowed in the courtroom while she testifies. Because it’s a private session, only defense attorneys, prosecutors and possibly her attorney, John Clune, will be allowed in the courtroom.
– The bellman, Bob Pietrack. Pietrack is the “outcry” witness, the first person the alleged victim told what happened. When their shift was over and they walked outside, she related to him her version of the events in Bryant’s Room 35 at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, the night of June 30.
Other possible witnesses:
– Former boyfriend Matt Herr.
– Kobe Bryant. Legal experts say if defense witnesses cannot refute sheriff’s investigators’ testimony that Bryant believed he was under arrest, and that the evidence therefore was improperly collected, Bryant might be called to the stand to explain his impressions of the night he was questioned, July 2, 2003. It would be a bold move by Bryant’s attorneys, but one they might have to make to convince Judge Ruckriegle to throw out the evidence. Even then, Ruckriegle might not do it and prosecutors would have had their first crack at interrogating the alleged perpetrator.
Bryant, 25, has said the two had consensual sex. He faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation if convicted of felony sexual assault.
Additional court time has been set aside to deal with more motions April 27-28, May 10-12, and possibly more.