A Full Court, Press at Bryant Hearing
Media, Onlookers Engulf Proceeding
By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 7, 2003; Page D01
EAGLE, Colo., Aug. 6 -- Basketball star Kobe Bryant stepped onto a different kind of court today as the State of Colorado formally launched the criminal case that could send him to prison on charges of felony sexual assault against a 19-year-old hotel clerk earlier this summer.
Hundreds of reporters engulfed the rural courthouse and several networks provided a live broadcast of today's hearing, which was a legal formality so brief that Bryant and his two defense lawyers walked out of the courtroom seven minutes after they walked in.
The 24-year-old defendant, wearing a cream-colored linen suit and an impassive face, spoke only two words. When Eagle County Judge Frederick W. Gannett asked Bryant if he would object to a date of Oct. 9 for the next procedural step in the case against him -- the preliminary hearing -- Bryant replied crisply, "No, sir."
The only substantive development in today's short hearing was a gain, of sorts, for the defense. The judge said he will appoint a special investigator to probe the defense's complaint that Eagle County Sheriff's officers have been leaking information detrimental to Bryant.
Last weekend there were reports in local newspapers that witnesses had corroborated the charge by the alleged victim that Bryant forced her to have sex in his suite at a nearby mountain resort. Bryant, a husband and father who has had an impeccable reputation until this case, has admitted to having sex with the woman, but he says it was consensual.
After those stories ran, defense lawyer Pamela Mackey blamed the county sheriff for leaking the witness testimony. She asked the court to reprimand the sheriff, warning that such leaks could taint potential jurors in the case. Judge Gannett said today that he was concerned: "Some of the reports in the media appear to me to address issues that are not generally available to the public," he said.
Gannett said he has asked the sheriff in neighboring Pitkin County to investigate the alleged leaks. If sheriff's officers are found responsible, they could be held in contempt of court for violating the judge's earlier gag order.
"That would be tough for the sheriff, but it probably wouldn't help Kobe's defense much," said Craig Silverman, a defense attorney and former prosecutor. "This investigation is a minor skirmish in a long legal war."
The Los Angeles Lakers guard flew to this mountainous county seat in a private jet today accompanied by bodyguards, but not by his wife, Vanessa, who has stood beside him since he admitted to "the mistake of adultery."
Defense attorneys had asked the judge to let him enter the building by a back door, and thus escape the "perp walk" video of Kobe Bryant walking into court on a felony sexual assault charge. But Bryant was told to use the front door like every other defendant here.
With a television camera in the courtroom, Bryant's attorney asked the judge to skip the official purpose of today's hearing, which was to advise the defendant of the charges against him. By waiving that step, the defense avoided the spectacle of Bryant listening as the judge read the state's charge that Bryant "knowingly inflicted sexual intrusion or sexual penetration . . . through the actual application of physical force or physical violence."
Some 500 reporters were on hand for the first hearing in the case of "State of Colorado v. Kobe Bean Bryant," court officials said. The media swarm provided both fun and profit for the people of Eagle.
One of the major reasons to live in this small ranching village is the spectacular view of the Rockies, with rugged green ridges and soaring mountain peaks. But Wednesday, when people here lifted their eyes unto the hills, the mountain vista was obscured by a wall of white TV transmission dishes. A steady flow of Eagle residents drove past the courthouse all day, gaping at the journalists and their high-tech apparatus.
Capitalism flourished on the edges of what's been called "Camp Kobe," the media tent city that now covers a half-acre of ground across the street from the courthouse.
On a hot August day, local children hawked lemonade, cold water, and sandwiches. Teenagers wearing Lakers shirts asked, in vain, to be paid for man-on-the-street interviews. In a town with two stoplights and no parking meters, an office park next to the courthouse was charging $20 per day for parking -- twice as much as it costs to park in downtown Denver.
Although most of the town's 3,500 residents seem to be strongly supportive of Bryant's accuser, some spectators outside the courthouse chose to make fashion statements in favor of the Lakers' guard. Their T-shirts said "Kobe Was Framed" and "Free Kobe!" A more subtle alternative: a shirt with Bryant's number, 8, encircled by the words "Innocent Until Proven Guilty."
© 2003 The Washington Post Company