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This court was too overwhelming

Rohn Robbins

My column for last week didn’t run. It was written, sent in ample time to my editor (yes, indeed, my column is sent to my good editor, Ed Stoner, before it sees print), and queued up for publication for Wednesday, notwithstanding that the usual weekday for my column is on Tuesdays. As you may recall, last Tuesday was a very busy day down at the Eagle County Justice Center and the slim pages of the Daily were overflowing with all things Kobe.The editor-in-chief, Don Rogers, called on Monday to ask if he could run the column Wednesday as news of the Bryant case had dominated all available space in Tuesday’s paper. The title of the column that didn’t run was “A Program Guide to the Kobe Bryant Trial.” It laid out, step-by-step, the usual course of trial proceedings. Of course, as things turned out, the case of People v. Kobe Bean Bryant didn’t proceed, except to a dramatic and perhaps largely anticlimactic conclusion. My column for last week was, accordingly, quickly rendered moot.District Attorney Mark Hurlbert bravely faced the cameras and announced, to borrow a metaphor from the “sweet science,” that the prosecution had thrown in the towel. The Bryant case was dismissed “with prejudice,” legal jargon for saying that charges could not be refiled against Mr. Bryant at any time in the future. Finis. Over. The fat lady had sung. And except for the nagging civil suit, Mr. Bryant was forever free of the albatross that had hung around his neck these last 14 months.Mr. Hurlbert, for whom I hold deep respect, laid fault for the fateful and dramatic decision to quit at the foot of the alleged victim in this case. To paraphrase, what Mr. Hurlbert said, the young woman, in examining her emotional constitution, had reached the cold determination that she could not go on. She had been subjected to trauma enough without laying bare the last unknown details and intimacies to what had proved to be an often hostile, unsympathetic and endlessly insatiable world. She had a valid point, of course. What the young woman (in fairness to Mr. Bryant, and in respect of our system of laws, I deign to call her “victim” any more, even when preceded by the adjective “alleged”) had suffered, both by error and intent (spanning from unfortunate “leaks” by the court, to junk yard dog attacks by the defense, to ink venomously spilled by yellow journalists) one would not wish on an enemy. Before judging her too harshly in ultimately backing away from trial, ask yourself if you could have, or would have, endured as much, particularly at such a tender age. Or if you would have encouraged your daughter to do so.Still, what Mr. Hurlbert said was that the young woman would not cooperate, would not offer testimony and, absent this essential witness, like a fine China figurine the case had shattered beyond repair. Although that piece of the story has largely been what the media has focused on, it isn’t the whole story. The larger part is this:In commencing voir dire (that is, examination of potential jurors), the prosecution and its jury consultant came to the inescapable conclusion that a large (and perhaps predominant) swath of the potential jury pool had made up their minds before a single shred of evidence was offered in the courtroom. They had determined, based on media reports alone, that Kobe Bryant was not guilty of the charges leveled against him.Allow me to repeat: Before a single word had been uttered in the courtroom, a large segment of the potential pool of jurors had already made up their minds. And that, in combination with the young woman’s refusal to testify, is what ultimately sent this case spiraling into the murky depths.What the prosecution acknowledged was that the jury pool had been successfully poisoned, that the campaign of “leaks,” “slips” and attack-dog tactics ultimately had worked. It is worth considering, too, that the first half of the equation that led to dismissal (that is, the young woman’s refusal to further cooperate) is simply fruit of the same poisoned tree. Had not the public been privy to the details that escaped before the trial, it is at least arguable that her road would not have been so rough and her constitution equal to the task of facing down the man she said had raped her. In the last analysis, however, it seems inescapable that why the case foundered on the steps of the courthouse door was that the potential jury knew the facts (or thought they knew the facts) before they heard them in a court of law. And something fundamental about justice has been lost thereby.Perhaps I know no more than you about the facts of this case. Perhaps as some pundits have opined, there never was a substantial case at all, that the case was fragile from the outset and that charges should never have been brought. Perhaps, as others have opined, out in the hinterlands here, the prosecution had stars in its eyes and was transfixed by the possibilities of a “big case” in their jurisdiction. I personally think not. The people I know down at the Justice Center, starting with Sheriff Hoy, advancing through Judge Gannett and District Attorney Hurlbert and ending with Judge Ruckriegle (despite the unfortunate e-mail lapses that plagued this case) are honorable, conscientious people, not the kind of folks who act on impulse or who are prompted by self-aggrandizement. I believe, in fairness to both judges who shepherded this case, that even when I disagreed with some of the decisions that were made there was never any cause to doubt the rectitude and care with which they were decided and the caution and deliberation that was spent in their evolution. And in the main, the big decisions, the controversial ones, were fully supported by the law.What is distressing at the end of the day is that People v. Kobe Bryant was decided by opinion polls. In the same insidious way that too many policy decisions are made, regardless of which administration is at the helm, in Washington, the case was foundered, at least in part, by the public pulse, popularity contests and preconceptions, rather than upon an airing of the facts. And this, my friends, is a danger much more consequential than whether justice in this particular case was served.The danger here is in what we may have lost. Does the anticlimax of the Bryant case portend that law should in the future be fought in the streets and on the airwaves rather than within a court of law? Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” He can be reached at 926-4461 or robbins@colorado.netVail, Colorado


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