Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal matters for CBS News and CBSNews.com.
The Kobe Bryant rape case is beginning to look and sound and feel a lot like another high-profile criminal case in Colorado that ended up making everyone who came near it look creepy and inept. From 1996 until just recently, I thought the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation was a low point for the criminal justice system in the state. Now, I'm not so sure. The Bryant case is careening down a path toward infamy, picking up speed as it nears trial.
No one is immune. Eagle County prosecutors have been hapless, almost to the point of farcical. Bryant's attorneys have been merciless, almost to the point of cruelty. The alleged victim's attorney has been shrill, almost to the point of hysterical. His client has been eccentric, almost to the point of bizarre. Bryant has been aloof, almost to the point of arrogant. The judge in the case has been slow, almost to the point of inaction. His staff has been inadequate, almost to the point of incompetence. And too many media stories about the case have been sordid, almost to the point of tawdry.
It makes me wish I could ship the whole cast to some island and make them fight it out amongst themselves in private so that the rest of us don't have to be brought along for the nasty, ugly ride. And I haven't felt that emotion since the high of the Ramsey investigation, when the police were fighting with prosecutors and the Ramseys were fighting with the media and no one seemed to be focusing upon the poor little girl who had brought them all together. Whatever happened inside that hotel room last June 30th between Bryant and his alleged victim is a tragedy on some level; surely everyone involved can and should do better in reacting to it and dealing with it.
This week we learned a little more about the way the world works in the Bryant case. We learned that defense attorneys have discovered that the alleged victim in the case has received from a state victim compensation fund approximately $20,000 worth of mental health treatment and reimbursement for lost wages. Prosecutors will argue at trial -- if, indeed, the issue goes to trial, the judge still hasn't decided -- that this large amount reflects the level of mental trauma Bryant put his alleged victim through when he raped her. Bryant's attorneys will argue that the figure represents a payment of sorts to Bryant's accuser; money that creates an incentive for her to continue to accuse Bryant and a disincentive for her to stop.
We learned that the trial probably will end up being an ugly battle of expert witnesses in addition to being an ugly he said/she said battle of credibility between the two young adults in the eye of this storm. Prosecutors are gearing up to trot out experts who will tell jurors that the alleged victim's injuries could only have been caused by Bryant during their sexual encounter together. Defense attorneys are going to trot out their own experts who will tell jurors precisely the opposite. We also could see a battle of experts over what jurors ought to make of the fact that the alleged victim apparently had sexual encounters with men other than Bryant around the time of the alleged assault. If they have to concede these encounters to begin with, prosecutors likely will argue that the young woman sought solace in the arms of another man after her encounter with Bryant because she was in shock over her rape. Defense experts likely will say, if they have to, that the young woman screamed "rape" as a cry for attention from one or more of the men in her life. How would you like to be a juror in this case?
We also learned this week that court administrators in Eagle County make the Three Stooges look like Swiss bankers. In an unforgivable breach of privacy -- unforgivable because it is so preventable and yet it keeps on happening -- the court inadvertently released the name of the alleged victim in a court document posted to the web site. In practical terms, this latest court mistake means virtually nothing since everyone knows the alleged victim's name anyway. But as a matter of principle it's fairly outrageous that the court can't get right a simple thing like a sealed record.
Even Eagle County Judge Terry Ruckriegle's open-court apology Friday -- "I can only assure you I have learned lessons from these mistakes, and that we will give our best human effort not to let it happen again" -- won't be enough to generate confidence in the system. The alleged victim and her attorney are furious with the judge for running a shoddy operation and I don't blame them. Riddle me this: Unless they have a pass to gain entrance to the courthouse, reporters aren't allowed to go to the bathroom adjacent to the hallway yet the court clearly can't control what information gets posted on its own website.
Finally, we learned this week in the Bryant case that the government may, indeed, issue and enforce a prior restraint against the publication of certain information despite the first amendment's "free speech" guarantee. United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer nudged Judge Ruckriegle to adopt the compromise position the Colorado Supreme Court had taken over the mistaken dissemination of a sealed rape-shield transcript to seven news organizations (including CBS). The Colorado High Court had told Ruckriegle to work with prosecutors and defense attorneys to come up with a redacted version of the transcript that then would be released to the public. That's happening now, as a zany week comes to an end in a case that would seem silly if it weren't just so sad.
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