Kobe Case: Good Riddance

NBA Los Angeles Lakers' star Kobe Bryant leaves the Justice Center in Eagle, Colo., on Monday, May 10, 2004, during a lunch break for a pretrial hearing in Bryant's sexual assault case. (AP Photo/Helen D. Richardson, File)
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal matters for CBSNews and CBSNews.com.

The Kobe Bryant rape case ended one week early and one year too late. It ended because common sense finally prevailed over politics and personalities. It ended because someone stood up and decided that a public spectacle of a trial would cause only more damage to two young people who already have suffered enough. It ended because sometimes the right thing happens in the world of the law even if it doesn't happen at the right time.

To understand how and why the case ended before trial all you need to know is that it never should have been brought in the first place. It was a date rape case, which are notoriously hard for prosecutors to win. It was a case without much evidence of injuries. It was a case involving a wealthy defendant with no prior criminal record. It was a case involving an alleged victim who had a history of problems. It was a case where the young woman involved left herself vulnerable to claims that she had been sexually active with a man just before and just after she was with Bryant. In short, it was a perfect storm of bad news for an inexperienced prosecution team.

Remember how this case started? It began in July 2003 when the police went behind the back of the prosecutor to get to a favorable local judge so that the judge would issue a search warrant against Bryant that the prosecutor was reluctant to approve. It was not an auspicious start and it never really got much better from there for the folks going after the basketball star. Prosecutors missed deadlines. Many important legal rulings went against them. Veteran defense attorneys had them twisting this way and that. And inexperienced court personnel added to the stress of the case by inadvertently releasing certain private information about the alleged victim — like her name — to the public (even though many in Eagle and elsewhere already knew who she was).

By the end, the case was so one-sided that the alleged victim and her attorneys were forced to rage at the judge, figuratively of course, and at the infirmities of a system that could have generated such a rout even before trial. But the system didn't charge Kobe Bryant. The system didn't investigate the allegation of rape against him. The system didn't vet the alleged victim to determine whether her story would stand up. The system didn't force Bryant to choose stellar attorneys. The "system" — the criminal justice system — merely took this case and all of these people as it found them.

Instead of railing at Eagle County District Judge Terry Ruckriegle, who did the best he could under difficult circumstances, the alleged victim's attorneys would have been better off raging at prosecutors for rushing into this case; or at the alleged victim's parents for not advising her better, or at the police for the way they handled the crime scene investigation, or even at their own client herself for some of the choices she made after the allegations came out. I figured this case was over the moment I saw the alleged victim's photograph splashed all over a tabloid newspaper dancing and grinding with some guy in a nightclub — after the case had begun.

For their part, prosecutors, too, were unwilling to look into the mirror as they searched around for ways to explain the implosion of their case. Instead of taking their fair share of blame for the way things turned out, prosecutors Wednesday said that they asked the judge to dismiss the case because the alleged victim had told them that she didn't want to proceed. Instead of being honest with us, and perhaps themselves, they made it seem as though the young woman had to twist their arms to get them to agree to even ask to dismiss the case. Instead of conceding that things might have been different had they done their jobs better, prosecutors damned the alleged victim with faint praise and even had the gall to suggest that they would have won at trial had she testified.

Sure, they would have won at trial — but only if Bryant himself had stood up in court and confessed to the crime in open court after swearing an oath. The least surprising news of the day is that the case was dismissed. The most surprising news is that prosecutors had neither the courage nor the grace nor the fortitude to protect for once the young woman's image by taking the blame themselves for this catastrophe of a case. I have no doubt but that the young woman didn't want to go to trial — can you blame her? But I also have no doubt that prosecutors wanted to get out of this case, too. No one wants to try a case they know they cannot win.

So I don't think it's a coincidence that the criminal case against Bryant ended on the very day that the judge made public a filing by defense attorneys in which they accused prosecutors of hiding important evidence from them. On Tuesday, Team Kobe asked Eagle County Judge Terry Ruckriegle to dismiss the case and/or sanction prosecutors because they purportedly failed or refused to tell Bryant's attorneys that a former prosecution expert witness had changed his mind about a key piece of evidence. Even if the judge had refused to dismiss the case at that point, the defense allegations, if true, vitiated whatever was left of the prosecution's case. You can't get a guilty verdict when your own experts turn around and support the defendant's theory.

I think prosecutors saw the storm clouds gathering — a bad case, very little evidence, an angry judge listening to arguments about sanctions — and decided to encourage the young woman to scuttle the case before the judge scuttled it for them. How else do you explain the timing of the dismissal? Sure, it's possible that the alleged victim got more nervous as opening statements drew near. Sure, it's possible that she became concerned when many potential jurors suggested in their voir dire process that they believed Bryant was innocent. But then why not earlier this week? Or later this week? Or even over the Labor Day weekend?

No, the way this came down gave the anti-Bryant faction a perfect out. Prosecutors get to blame the alleged victim for the end of the case. The alleged victim gets to blame the judge and his staff and the media. The judge can't say anything, the media doesn't have to answer to anyone, and Bryant laughs all the way back to Endorsement Land while he offers a written apology to the young woman whose life intersected with his for such a brief moment.

And so this story ends the way it began. Fourteen months ago, Bryant took advantage of the young woman (whether you believe he raped her or not is another story). Today, by placing the dismissal squarely on her shoulders, prosecutors victimized the young woman all over again. That's the lesson of the Bryant rape case and it's a sorry lesson, indeed.

By Andrew Cohen