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The higher value of Kobe transcript

Don Rogers

The talking heads didn’t seem to get it. The girl got slimed for months, said one TV lawyer. The Vail Daily publishing Kobe Bryant’s interview with sheriff’s detectives on its Web site was a step toward evening the score. Fight fire with fire, match slime for slime.No, the Daily was evil incarnate trashing poor Kobe, hollered another. What kind of journalism is that? The paper should have respected a court order on officials not to release the recording of the basketball star’s interview with two sheriff’s detectives the night after his sexual encounter in his room at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera with a 19-year-old front desk worker.Well, observed another, I don’t know what all the big secrecy was about. As far as determining whether he committed a crime while cheating on his wife, this wasn’t very incriminating. Why’s the defense fighting so hard to keep it under wraps? It’s just not that bad.That last sentiment nudged closest to why the Daily would publish the information. We’re not interested in who looks better or worse than the other. We’re not interested in trashing anyone. We’re not even interested in trying to show whether Kobe Bryant is guilty of more than the crude adultery he admitted the evening he was charged with sexual assault 14 months ago.Hard to believe for a media organization, I’m sure, but our interest lies in ostensibly democratic government acting as it should. That very much includes doing our best to make sure our law enforcement and judicial systems truly are open and accountable to the people they are supposed to serve – which would be the community at large. These officials in particular can get a bit caught up in other priorities.In case the players haven’t noticed, the criminal case against Bryant is over, and it cannot come back. While we can sympathize with his feelings about his interview with a couple of sheriff’s detectives hours after knee surgery becoming public, there is a higher constitutional right at stake than a celebrity’s embarrassment at getting himself into his mess.His Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial have passed. Society’s First Amendment right to be able to evaluate the performance of its representatives very much remains – even if judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers perhaps prefer to avoid that niggling part of a democratic system.Besides, two of the main players in this debacle are the judge presiding over this case in district court and the district attorney who brought the charges and oversaw the prosecution. Both happen to be up for election Nov. 2. They answer ultimately to all of us, or at least all of us who can bring ourselves to vote. We have the right to be able to more fully evaluate their performance while conducting the public’s business.The prosecutors folded their tent continuing to talk up what a great case they had. One, Dana Easter, gave interviews purporting to provide information directly from the detectives questioning Bryant as part of explaining why she thought she had such a strong case. Defense attorney Pamela Mackey promptly accused Easter of lying where she wasn’t merely exaggerating.And of course, the DA’s spokeswoman, Krista Flannigan, has continued on as she has for months and months with her Baghdad Bob-like mantra about the prosecution’s strong case. Flannigan might well still believe that the alleged victim remains courageously determined to testify just as soon as she can get on the stand.The point is that we the people shouldn’t have to take the prosecutors, defense attorneys or alleged victim’s private attorneys’ word for it. We have a right to evaluate the conduct of the police, District Attorney’s Office and judges for ourselves with the information they had to make their respective judgments. That’s the higher value now that the case has been dismissed.The court system has gone in exactly the opposite direction since the case was dropped Sept. 1, even to the point of removing all Kobe Bryant case documents from the state court Web site. Lawyers representing the media, including the Vail Daily, with more eloquent arguments than I can make are fighting in court to keep these documents public and to make many other documents that were sealed from the public available now that the case is over. There no longer is a viable argument about keeping their contents secret in the interest of a fair trial. There isn’t going to be a trial. At least not a criminal trial. While I think the judges handling this case have in the main made fair and reasonable rulings dealing with the case itself, it’s clear that First Amendment and open government issues have been more difficult for them. The U.S. Supreme Court even had to intervene at one point to nudge Judge Terry Ruckriegle back on track.For whatever reason, they do not entirely seem to understand their responsibility to the public, and its right to know. So shortly after the Daily’s assistant managing editor and prime Kobe case reporter, Randy Wyrick, opened his mail Wednesday evening, we got busy into the wee hours of Thursday to run a story for the paper and publish the entire transcript on the Web. Why have two editors – not exactly the fastest typists in the shop – type 57 pages until nearly 4 a.m.? Some of that is competitive instinct, I’m sure. We had no idea who else might have received a brown envelope with no return address with a CD and transcript inside. Mainly, though, I wasn’t about to give a judge another shot at abusing the First Amendment with an order barring us from publication. So, poor Randy, his editor turned into a seven-hour zealot and tyrant. Do we really need to do this right now? Damn straight. These are precisely the times that America’s version of a free press has been the savior of our form of government. Yes, I know, Kobe Bryant’s case is a very, very small example. But the public still has the fundamental right to evaluate how the case was handled, which includes knowing details of the information prosecutors and police had at their disposal. If the judges can’t quite come to grips with that bit of higher truth, well, we’ll just have to help them out a little.Secrets almost always weaken our democratic system, including in the courts. Fewer secrets about this case from the beginning would have led to more accurate information for the public and a fairer trial in the end, assuming that a trial was ever really in the cards. I’m sorry if the talking heads – lawyers all – didn’t get it. But hardly surprised. The judges don’t seem to, either.Then again, at the paper we’re not working for any of them. Managing Editor Don Rogers can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 600, or editor@vaildaily.com Vail, Coolorado


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