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Bryant Prosecutor Questions Handling of DNA

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2004; Page A10

DENVER, Aug. 25 -- Prosecutors in the Kobe Bryant rape trial charged Wednesday that critical DNA evidence appears to have been "manipulated" and "contaminated" after it was turned over to Bryant's defense team for testing.

In court documents filed two days before the criminal trial is to begin, prosecutor Dana Easter raised questions about handling of DNA samples by a laboratory hired by Bryant's attorneys.

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The samples, and the defense lab's report on them, are crucial to Bryant's contention that his accuser cannot be believed. The handling of the DNA samples, taken from the alleged victim's underwear after she reported to police that Bryant had raped her, has become a heated issue in preliminary arguments leading up to the trial.

An expert paid by the defense team said she believes that the DNA evidence shows the accuser may have had sex with another man after her encounter with Bryant. Prosecutors and the accuser have denied that conclusion.

District Judge Terry Ruckriegle granted prosecutors' request for a hearing Thursday to question the reliability of the defense's DNA experts. A closed hearing is also set for Thursday to discuss the questionnaire of about 100 items that prospective jurors will complete.

Lawyers on both sides of the case declined to comment Wednesday on the prosecution's filing, citing a gag order issued by Ruckriegle.

The 26-year-old Los Angeles Lakers guard faces a single count of felony sexual assault. If convicted, he will face penalties ranging from strict probation to life in prison. A felony conviction would void his new $136 million contract with the Lakers.

The case stems from an encounter on June 30, 2003, when Bryant checked into a mountain resort in central Colorado and invited the then-19-year-old desk clerk to his room. The woman alleges that the athlete gripped her by the neck, bent her over a chair and violated her by force. Bryant says they engaged in consensual sex.

In court and in written motions, prosecution and defense lawyers have been battling for weeks over the DNA evidence taken from the accuser's underwear. The defense's expert, Elizabeth Johnson, said in earlier hearings that she will testify that the DNA suggests the accuser had been promiscuous.

But the prosecution motion filed Wednesday charges that Johnson's laboratory may have contaminated the sample. The motion says that reports on the evidence from Johnson's lab appear to have been "whited out or otherwise manipulated." They demanded that the defense provide a detailed "chain of custody" report listing everybody on the defense side who had contact with the evidence or the report.

The high-profile trial has drawn a massive news media contingent to the grounds around the small rural courthouse in Eagle, Colo. Television journalists will do their reporting on the case from outside the courtroom, however. Late Tuesday, Ruckriegle denied motions from news organizations to allow live television coverage of the trial.

The judge said he will allow still cameras in the courtroom during opening statements. He will permit live telecast of closing arguments. But cameras will be banned during all other parts of the trial, including witness testimony.

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