Judge orders trial for Bryant, but says prosecutors offered minimal evidence

Monday, October 20th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

EAGLE, Colo. (AP) _ NBA star Kobe Bryant has been ordered to stand trial on a charge of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Colorado resort worker, but the judge said prosecutors had offered only minimal evidence.

Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett said Monday that although prosecutors presented ``a minimal amount of evidence,'' what they did show suggested ``submission and force.'' The evidence included photographs of the woman's injuries, as well as blood on her underwear and on Bryant's T-shirt.

The Los Angeles Lakers guard could face life in prison if convicted. His next appearance, in district court, was set for Nov. 10.

Bryant, 25, has said the sex was consensual. His attorneys suggested the woman's injuries came during sex with other men in the days before her June 30 encounter with Bryant at a posh resort in nearby Edwards.

The defense can appeal Gannett's ruling, but such appeals are rare, legal experts said.

At Bryant's first appearance in state district court he will be advised of his rights, the charge and the possible penalties. He could also enter a plea during that hearing.

Unless Bryant waives his right to a speedy trial, the trial would be scheduled within six months of his plea.

Prosecutors in Colorado almost always succeed in persuading a judge to order a trial after a preliminary hearing because the standard of proof required is relatively low. Allegations are usually enough to advance the case to a higher court for trial, where the standard of proof is much higher.

District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said he was ``pleased'' by the decision, ``although we had confidence all along in the case.''

Bryant's attorneys issued a statement saying that although they knew their chances of getting a dismissal had been slim, ``the prosecution's case simply had to be tested.''

``The standard at trial is a far higher burden: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. When this case is tested by that standard, Kobe Bryant will be found innocent,'' Pamela Mackey and co-counsel Hal Haddon said in a written statement.

At the Lakers' El Segundo, Calif., practice facility, Bryant was asked before the ruling how much anxiety he was feeling. ``Basketball, zero anxiety. Other stuff, a little anxiety,'' he said.

``But now I just pretty much, you know, give it up. I've pretty much done all I can. Now I'll let God carry me the rest of the way. I feel comfortable with that,'' he said.

John Clune, the lawyer representing Bryant's accuser, declined comment.

Gannett's comments on the evidence indicate he had questions about the prosecution's case, legal analysts said.

Judges normally don't issue written rulings after preliminary hearings, and the fact that Gannett wrote his suggests the case is fraught with difficulties, said Scott Robinson, a Denver defense attorney.

``The reality is that unless there is significantly more substantial evidence available at trial, and a suitable explanation for some of the puzzling physical evidence which surfaced last week, a conviction looks like a completely unlikely scenario,'' Robinson said.

Bryant's preliminary hearing lasted nearly two days and included graphic testimony about an encounter prosecutors say turned violent after flirting by both Bryant and his accuser.

Sheriff's Detective Doug Winters testified the woman went to Bryant's room at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera shortly after checking in him and his two bodyguards.

The two chatted and began kissing. But a few minutes later, Bryant grabbed the woman by the throat, bent her over a chair and raped her, asking her several times not to tell anybody, Winters testified.

She told Bryant ``no'' at least twice, and he stopped only after she pulled his hand off her neck, Winters said.

The woman was left with vaginal tears consistent with assault and her blood was found on Bryant's shirt, Winters said.

But he acknowledged under cross-examination by Mackey that the woman had sex with another man shortly before her encounter with Bryant. She also didn't tell Winters initially that she had said ``no.''

The defense argued that semen and pubic hair found in the woman's underwear that weren't from Bryant prove he is innocent _ an argument ridiculed by prosecutor Greg Crittenden.

A trial could attract the kind of attention that surrounded O.J. Simpson's 1995 case, when he was acquitted of killing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman after a nationally televised trial. A civil jury later found him liable.

At Bryant's trial, any discussion of the woman's sexual history could be limited by Colorado's rape shield law, unless Bryant's attorneys successfully argue the evidence fits into one of the few exceptions.

Prosecutors, however, must convince a jury that a woman flattered by Bryant's attention had no intention of having sex with him as they kissed. Winters acknowledged she told him she expected Bryant to ``put a move'' on her when she accepted the invitation to his room.

Hurlbert has said he held back some evidence, knowing a preliminary hearing requires a judge to look at the evidence in a way that is most favorable to prosecutors.