Lakers' Bryant Will Stand Trial For Sexual Assault
By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2003; Page A01
DENVER, Oct. 20 -- Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant must face a criminal trial on the charge of felony sexual assault lodged against him, a Colorado county court judge ruled on Monday. The order begins a legal timetable that could put Bryant in court next spring before a national television audience in a trial that could be the most-watched trial since O.J. Simpson's.
In a nine-page decision, Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett said the evidence presented at Bryant's preliminary hearing earlier this month "is sufficient to induce a reasonable belief that the Defendant [Bryant] committed sexual assault as charged" if the evidence is construed in the light most favorable to the prosecution.
Bryant was ordered today to appear in state District Court on Nov. 10 at 9 a.m. local time for a hearing called a "First Appearance," where he will be advised of his rights as a defendant. That night, the Lakers will be playing in Memphis.
The county judge's decision to bind over the case for trial shifts this media-saturated criminal matter to a new judge. The proceedings will still be held in the same rural courthouse in Eagle, Colo., where Bryant has appeared three times. This is presumably a relief to the TV networks, which have constructed an elaborate media city around the courthouse, the likes of which have not been seen since the 1995 Simpson trial held just outside of Los Angeles. Indeed, Simpson's chief prosecutor, Marcia Clark, is now covering the Bryant trial as a special correspondent for the syndicated television show "Entertainment Tonight."
Bryant could proceed to the formal arraignment -- where a plea to the charge is entered -- at the same hearing. Attorneys following the case say that's likely that will happen. Otherwise, the defendant would have to return to Colorado within a few weeks just for the arraignment. Bryant's lawyers say he will plead not guilty. The NBA all-star has been charged with sexual assault on a 19-year-old hotel clerk on the night of June 30 while he was staying at a mountain resort. The woman told police that he gripped her by the neck, bent her over a chair and violated her while she wept and said, "No."
Bryant, a husband and father, has admitted having sex with the woman. He says the intercourse was consensual, and claims he is innocent of forcible assault. If convicted, he faces penalties ranging from 20 years of closely supervised probation to a prison term of four years to life.
At the criminal trial Eagle County prosecutors will bear the much tougher evidentiary burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Bryant actually raped the Eagle County woman who brought the charge against him.
As a general rule, Colorado felony trials begin about four to six months after the arraignment. In Bryant's case, that would mean sometime between early March and early May. The state's speedy trial law requires that trial begin within six months of arraignment, although the defense can waive that rule and ask the judge for a further delay.
Legal motions, witness availability, or other developments could delay a trial by weeks or months. But judges and prosecutors in Eagle County have said repeatedly they intend to treat Bryant like any other defendant. That would suggest fairly close adherence to a normal felony schedule.
The Lakers' regular season schedule ends April 14, with the NBA playoffs extending for weeks thereafter. After the postseason, in mid-summer, will come the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where Bryant had been expected to play for the U.S.
"Trials get delayed for a lot of reasons," says Craig Silverman, a defense attorney and former prosecutor in Denver. "But it's hard to imagine a way this trial could be delayed beyond the season, beyond the playoffs, and beyond the Olympics."
Gannett's ruling consisted mainly of a recitation of the evidence presented in the explosive two-day preliminary hearing earlier this month. At the hearing, a county detective set forth the accuser's graphic description of consensual flirting, kissing, and hugging that gradually turned into a violent rape. Bryant's chief lawyer, Pamela Mackey, made it clear at the hearing that the defense strategy at trial will be an aggressive attack on the veracity, character, and sexual activity of the accuser.
A key question at the trial stage will be how deeply the defense can delve into the accuser's prior sexual practices. The Colorado Rape Shield law makes the woman's sexual history "presumptively inadmissible" at trial. But Mackey argued during the preliminary hearing that, because of the circumstances of the Bryant case, the law does not prevent her from presenting evidence about the woman's private life.
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