Four Words, Six Seconds

L.A. Lakers' star Kobe Bryant listens to Judge Terry Ruckriegle with his attorneys Pamela Mackey and Hal Haddon as he enters a plea of not guilty in the charges of sexual assault against him at the Justice Center Tuesday, May 11, 2004 in Eagle, Colo. AP

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



It was over in about the same time it takes the defendant in this rape case to go from one end of a basketball court to the other. After nearly two days of chaotic inactivity at the Eagle County Justice Center, the arraignment of Kobe Bean Bryant took about six seconds and entailed precisely four words from the young giant — "yes, sir" and "not guilty."

When you consider the legal fees and expenses, and the travel, administrative and security costs, and the costs to all the media organizations that send their minions to cover Bryant's formal and completely expected "not guilty" plea in this beautiful Colorado mountain town, I reckon those six seconds cost about $6 million. Even Bryant doesn't make that much money per second playing as a superstar in the National Basketball Association.

Still, dollar for dollar, it was a decent week in Eagle for those of us wishing that this case finally gets to trial. By that I mean it was a far more productive week than we usually get when this crew gets together to make new rape-case law. The arraignment, of course, starts the clock ticking toward trial, which now will take place within six months barring some extraordinary development (like an appeal by prosecutors if they lose the fight to keep the alleged victim's sexual history from jurors). That alone would have made the week worthwhile. But there were other good signs of progress as well.

On Monday, the court announced that the parties had finished fighting over whether Bryant's statement to authorities ought to be introduced to the jury. That dispute, and a dispute over whether jurors should hear about the blood-stained t-shirt Bryant purportedly was wearing when he was visited by the police last summer, now is ready for resolution by District Judge Terry Ruckriegle. That decision will significantly shape the contours of the case and get it ready for trial.

On Tuesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys both announced in open court that they have agreed to subject potential trial jurors in the case to specific, individualized questioning during the jury selection process. That makes perfect sense in a case like this; a case that blends celebrity with race and class distinctions. The consensus means that jury selection now will take a little longer. But it also means that it is far more likely that a decent jury will be selected and that any conviction it delivers will be upheld on appeal.

That jury likely will hear the alleged victim's real name in court during the trial. That's another point of agreement that seems to have sprouted from the day-and-a-half-long hearing in the sun and wind of the Eagle Valley. Bryant's attorneys long have argued that they should be allowed to call their client's accuser by her given name (and their client "Mr. Bryant") in order to create a "level playing field" devoid of pejorative descriptions like "accuser" and "defendant."

Prosecutors had long resisted the call to name-call but, on Tuesday, District Attorney Mark Hurlburt acknowledged that it wouldn't be the end of the world if the jury got to hear the name of Bryant's accuser. The judge still can block that from happening but I wouldn't bet on it. For the same reason, I also wouldn't bet on Judge Ruckriegle permitting prosecutors to call the alleged victim in the case a "victim" (without the qualifier). Hurlburt argued Tuesday that the alleged victim would be "re-victimized" if the State weren't allowed to call her a "victim" at trial. Bryant's attorney, Hal Haddon, called it "overblown" that anyone could be "victimized" by being called by their own name. That issue, too, now is ripe for resolution by the judge.

None of this means we are going to see a trial by the Fourth of July. The rape-shield dispute still has not been fully briefed and developed by the parties — and won't be until at least another round of hearings in late June. For some reason — we don't know because all of the rape-shield proceedings are closed to the public — Judge Ruckriegle cannot seem to end the hearing into whether Bryant's attorneys have established that it is possible that the alleged victim had sex with another man shortly after her encounter with Bryant. The resolution of that issue, like the suppression issue, will truly define what this case will look like at trial.

But we are much closer to that trial than you might think. The lawyers told the judge Tuesday that they had resolved a dispute over certain information prosecutors owed the defense. And there also seemed to be a partial consensus on the language of one of the instructions jurors ultimately will receive just before they begin their deliberations. There didn't even seem to be an uproar from the defense when, on Monday afternoon, the alleged victim showed up at court and sat in on an otherwise closed session. What was she observing? Dunno. How will her observations affect her testimony at trial? Dunno. Why did the judge let her in and the defense not object? Dunno.

What I do know is that everyone was on their best behavior when the courtroom doors finally were opened to the media and the public. Actually, things went so smoothly during the hour-long public session Tuesday, and there had previously been such a long streak of closed-door sessions, that it almost seemed as if the attorneys had forgotten to showboat for the sake of the courtroom crowd. The courtroom was nowhere near the den of vipers it had been, say, on the day when Bryant's attorney mistakenly identified the alleged victim, causing prosecutors to cry out in unison.

Are the lawyers going soft? Are they starting to learn how to play nice with each other even while they represent the interests of their clients? Or is Judge Ruckriegle as tough behind the scenes as he seems mild-mannered behind the bench? We'll find out soon enough; like, say, by the end of the summer when the Bryant rape trial is finally underway.

By Andrew Cohen
  • Lloyd Vries

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