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Kobe Shirts Spark Defense Protest

Suggesting racism may be behind Kobe Bryant's prosecution on a sexual assault charge, defense attorneys asked a judge Monday to help them find out whether sheriff's deputies and prosecution employees ordered T-shirts which ridicule Bryant's defense and feature a hangman drawing on the back.

"The information is sought because it is relevant to show the bias of the investigating agencies," defense attorney Pamela Mackey wrote, echoing an accusation she raised in the early days of the case. "Bias is always relevant."

The request is the latest salvo in the increasingly abrasive relationship between prosecutors and defense attorneys in the case against the Los Angeles Lakers star.

Bryant is charged with attacking a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort last June. He has said the two had consensual sex.

Officials with the Eagle County sheriff's office have said a company called hangmantees.com gave the office two black T-shirts with a Bryant theme on Oct. 9, the first day of Bryant's preliminary hearing.

One has Bryant's No. 8 on the back with the words, "I'm not a rapist; I'm just a cheater." The other lists the costs of Bryant's trip to Eagle County and ends with, "Not bringing your wife to Colorado with you - priceless."

The back of the shirts feature the hangmantees.com logo- a stick figure of a hanging man - as in the word game hangman, a theme carried out on the front of the shirt as well, with only some of the letters in Bryant's name filled in: K_B BRY NT .

On its web site, hangmantees.com says its purpose is to ridicule the bad behavior of celebrity role models. Site visitors are asked to choose the next subject of the T-shirt company's "hanging" - Arnold, Hillary, Peterson (apparently a reference to murder defendant Scott Peterson), or Rush - and are told that the King of Pop will be getting his own shirt soon.

Bryant defense attorney Mackey says the shirts have been characterized as racist and "invocative of Klan lynching."

A sheriff's spokeswoman has said the shirts will be kept for the department's archive.

Mackey is accusing the sheriff's office of ordering 78 of the shirts for employees and for the district attorney's office. She cited unspecified e-mails between the sheriff's office and the shirt vendor.

Sheriff Joe Hoy said Monday one of his employees corresponded with the company using the office e-mail system, but he would not elaborate. He said the person, who still works for him, was disciplined and is not involved with the Bryant case.

"There's not any bias in any way, shape or form," Hoy said.

Bryant faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation if convicted of felony sexual assault. He must appear at hearings in Eagle scheduled for Dec. 19 and Jan. 23.

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