Kobe Loses, Cops Do Too

NBA star Kobe Bryant leaves court at the Justice Center in Eagle, Colo., on Tuesday, June 22, 2004, after a pretrial hearing in his sexual assault case.
Kobe Bryant lost more than he won Wednesday afternoon when the judge in his rape case ruled admissible certain statements and clothing he gave to the police the night he learned he was a suspect. Now that this evidence has been cleared to be shown to jurors, prosecutors will at least have a bit of documentation to try to shore up their "he said/she said" case.

But Judge Terry Ruckriegle's long-anticipated ruling hardly dooms Bryant's defense and it certainly won't do much to improve public perceptions about the way the police handle these sorts of investigations. Indeed, three themes emerge from the 17-page "Findings and Conclusions" released in Eagle County, Colo. late Wednesday and two of them are fairly unflattering specifically to the local sheriff's office, and in general to the criminal justice system.

The first thing you notice when you read the ruling is that Bryant didn't act like a man who had anything to hide when first stopped by the police in the night of July 1. In fact, given the encounter we now know he had with the alleged victim in the case, Bryant's initial cooperation with authorities was as startling as it was naive. His bodyguards, whom you might presume would have some training or experience with police procedures, never even tried to get their client away from his interrogators and Bryant himself acted as though he were being interviewed during a halftime show.

The second thing you notice is how duplicitous the police were during the entire episode. They never told Bryant that they had a court order requiring him to submit to a physical exam. They exaggerated the nature and extent of the evidence against him. They took steps to try to ensure that his bodyguards couldn't and wouldn't intervene in the questioning. They surreptitiously taped conversations between Bryant and his handlers. And then they forced Bryant to submit to a rape exam in the middle of the night even though the Colorado law forbade it in these circumstances.

These tactics might seem more shocking if they weren't so routine. Which brings me to the third theme of Judge Ruckriegle's order. It always astounds me to read the lengths the police are forced to go to get incriminating information from suspects, whether or not those suspects actually have committed a crime. And it always amazes me to discover how far the courts have gone to endorse these practices. Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court finally rejected a police tactic whereby officers would try to soften up a suspect with a pre-Miranda-warning question session in order to make the suspect more likely to confess again during a follow-up interview.

What happened to Bryant early in the morning on July 2, 2003 is different only in degree to what the Supreme Court prohibited. He was fooled into thinking that he was in a lot less trouble than he actually was and then his ego or his own stupidity took over and prosecutors now have some evidence they can use to portray him as a rapist, whether or not he actually is one.
I don't blame the judge for finding that Bryant consented to the interrogation or voluntarily handed over his clothes to the police. Colorado law required him to make the ruling and lawyers from both sides probably expected it. But that doesn't make right what the police did to him that morning.

So now what? Now both sides will spin this evidence in court in front of the jury. Prosecutors will say the blood on Bryant's shirt proves the existence of violent "force" needed for a rape conviction. They'll say that Bryant's demeanor that night -- especially his shedding of tears in the bathroom of his hotel room -- imply a guilty mind. They'll point to inconsistencies in his version of his encounter with the young woman and then they'll label him a liar.

The defense, though, also has plenty of twirl-worthy material to use. Bryant's attorneys will point to the fact that their client still possessed the clothes in question a day after the encounter as proof that he had nothing to hide; wouldn't a real rapist dispose of his bloody clothes, they'll ask? They'll say Bryant was crying only because he had come to the realization that his wife and the rest of the world soon would learn that he was an adulterer. They'll tell jurors that Bryant's openness with the police also was a sign that he had nothing to hide -- even though they've just finished telling the judge that Bryant was coerced into making those statements.

More than any other decision so far, the suppression ruling has shaped the way the case will look at trial. By getting most of the evidence past this hurdle, prosecutors now at least have a viable chance of convicting Bryant. Had they lost the suppression battle entirely, it would have been game over for prosecutors and everyone involved in the case knows it. The defense, meanwhile, failed in its first attempt to knock the case out before trial but still has that rape-shield issue alive as a possible means to end the trial before it starts. The best thing the defense has going for it given this ruling is that Bryant already has concede that he had sex with his alleged victim; a concession defense attorneys will be able to use to try to explain virtually everything Bryant did and said and handed over to the police.

Go ahead and read the ruling and then tell me whether you think it shows Bryant is a rapist or merely an arrogant young man who hadn't already learned what many other young men learn when the police come calling in the middle of the night; when in doubt, keep your mouth shut.