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Kobe Judge Laments Court Gaffes

The judge who dismissed the rape case against NBA star Kobe Bryant expressed frustration in an interview Thursday, saying a series of embarrassing courthouse mistakes should serve as a warning against taking money away from the judiciary.

District Judge Terry Ruckriegle recalled looking into the eyes of the alleged victim's parents during a July court session and apologizing for the gaffes, which included the posting of her name on a state courts site. Twice.

Sitting in his largely empty courtroom less than 24 hours after Bryant walked away from a case that could have landed him in prison for life, a weary-looking Ruckriegle declined to discuss details of a case that has consumed him for months. But he said it should serve as "exhibit A" in the argument against slashing court system budgets.

"This is a nationwide problem," he said. "This is no longer a potential impact, it's a very real impact."

Ruckriegle dismissed the case late Wednesday after an attorney for the alleged victim said she no longer wanted to participate. The attorney, John Clune, cited a long series of mistakes, including the release of her name in court documents and a goof that sent her medical records to attorneys in the case.

As a result, Clune said, the 20-year-old woman was harassed, ridiculed and threatened — more than enough reason to drop out. She demanded a promise from the judge that charges would never be refiled because she wanted no more involvement with the criminal courts. Ruckriegle reluctantly granted her wish.

"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," agrees legal analyst Andrew Cohen.

"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," Cohen says.

The judge felt strongly enough about the budget woes to sound off about it in open court as he threw out the felony sexual assault charge against the Los Angeles Lakers star.

A day later, he said he had received messages from judges in other states thanking him for pointing out problems in the Bryant case resulting from budget cuts and noting similar problems.

The 57-year-old judge said he tried to warn state officials three years ago cuts were forcing staff cutbacks and higher workloads. Dan Hopkins, a spokesman for Gov. Bill Owens, said it was unfair to blame mistakes on budget cuts.

"I don't think that argument would fly with state agencies, and I don't think they will find that argument flies with the judicial department either," Hopkins said.

Karen Mathis, a Denver attorney and a candidate for president of the American Bar Association, said the cutbacks could lead to retrials.

She said many courts are using tape machines instead of court reporters, and in many cases it is impossible to tell who is talking or what was said. She said some attorneys have said they cannot file appeals or have been forced to settle because there is no court record.

"It is getting to the point where the hits we are taking are really eating into the fabric of justice in this state," she said.

District Court administrator Chris Yuhas said she had to fire three of her four court reporters after the state economy went into decline three years ago and state agencies were ordered to cut their budgets. She said the Bryant case forced her undermanned department to look for ways to get case documents to scores of reporters hungry for information.

She said it normally takes three days to review and post court documents, and posting the documents on a state courts Web site offered a quick solution. The vast majority of filings in the case were fine. But the alleged victim's name showed up on two separate occasions, and then a court reporter accidentally e-mailed transcripts from a closed hearing to news organizations that eventually published the sordid details about the woman's sexual activities.

That led to demands for the judge to scrap the use of electronic media to handle information in the case. He said no.

Ruckriegle said he decided to continue posting documents on the Web site because there was no short-term solution. He said he still plans to use the Internet for future court cases.

"Before the Wright brothers took off, a lot of planes crashed, but they didn't abandon the technology," Ruckriegle said. "We can't afford to let one case affect advances in the justice system."