Kobe Bryant won a key court victory Friday when a judge ruled that his attorneys can present evidence to a jury about some of the sexual activities of the woman who has accused him of rape.
The evidentiary ruling by Colorado Judge Terry Ruckriegle authorizes Bryant's defense team to move ahead with its basic strategy for the upcoming criminal trial: an aggressive attack on the credibility, mental competence and morality of the 20-year-old woman who said the Los Angeles Lakers guard assaulted her violently in a Colorado hotel suite last year.
Like every other state, Colorado has passed a "rape shield" law designed to protect the accuser in a rape case from personal embarrassment. The law says that a woman's prior sexual history is "presumptively irrelevant." It was enacted so that women who have been raped would be less reluctant to report the crime to police and take part in a trial.
But Ruckriegle said he will allow defense lawyers to probe any sexual encounters the accuser may have had in the two days before she met Bryant and in the hours after their encounter. Ruckriegle said such evidence is relevant to determine whether Bryant caused the woman's injuries.
A nurse who examined the woman hours after her encounter with the National Basketball Association star told police that she had injuries "not consistent with consensual sex." Prosecutors have charged that her wounds were caused by forced intercourse with Bryant.
He has admitted having sex with the woman but said it was consensual. He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted on the single felony count against him, he faces penalties ranging from 20 years of closely supervised probation to a prison term of four years to life. His new seven-year, $136 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers would be voided.
Prosecutors had no immediate comment on the ruling. They could try to appeal the ruling to the Colorado Supreme Court. That could delay Bryant's criminal trial, scheduled to begin just before Labor Day in the mountain village of Eagle, Colo.
In a separate evidentiary ruling a week ago, Ruckriegle gave prosecutors a victory when he ruled that a bloody T-shirt police found in Bryant's hotel suite could be admitted into evidence. Prosecutors said the woman's blood is on the shirt and would not be there if she had consented to sex with the athlete. Defense attorneys had said police seized the shirt improperly and argued that it should not be admitted.
Friday's ruling, allowing defense attorneys to circumvent the state's shield law, has been the subject of months of legal arguments. The judge said he heard 27 witnesses, including the accuser, before deciding that some evidence of her sexual conduct around the same time as the Bryant encounter can be admitted.
Advocates for rape victims had urged the judge not to allow the woman's sexual history into evidence. "No wonder women are so afraid to go to police when they are raped," said Cynthia Stone, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "Not only do you have to relive the rape, but the defense lawyers try to broadcast every other aspect of your private life."