Bryant makes first court appearance on sexual assault charge

Updated: August 6, 2003, 9:42 PM ET

EAGLE, Colo. -- NBA superstar Kobe Bryant made his first court appearance on a sexual assault charge Wednesday, uttering just two words during a seven-minute hearing that created a media frenzy in this quiet mountain town.

Attorneys for the 24-year-old Bryant waived his right to be formally advised of the felony assault charge, sparing the Los Angeles Lakers guard even more time in the granite-walled courtroom that was jammed with reporters.

Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett set an Oct. 9 preliminary hearing to determine whether the closely watched case will go to trial. The hearing would be one day after a Lakers' preseason game and about three weeks before the start of the regular season.

Bryant spoke only once during the hearing, answering "No, sir" when the judge asked if he objected to giving up his right to have the preliminary hearing within 30 days. He left the courthouse immediately and was expected to return to California by private jet.

The case has been the subject of widespread speculation about Bryant's accuser, a 19-year-old college student who worked at the front desk of the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in nearby Edwards. Bryant was in Colorado to have knee surgery in Vail.

Bryant has said he had consensual sex with the hotel clerk June 30 but is innocent of assault. If convicted, Bryant faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine of up to $750,000. He is free on $25,000 bond.

The judge asked the Pitkin County sheriff to investigate whether law enforcement officials were leaking details to reporters in a case he said he was drawing "extraordinary" media coverage.

"I am concerned with some reports that I have seen in the press," Gannett said. "They appear to address issues that are not generally available to the public."

Gannett has already issued a gag order in the case and is weighing media requests to release court records.

The hearing was held amid a media circus that included hundreds of reporters and photographers who swamped the courthouse grounds before a hearing that was carried live on national cable networks. Even the jury box was filled with courthouse employees eager to catch a glimpse of the celebrity defendant.

Clad in a cream-colored suit, Bryant strode in between his two attorneys and kept his gaze fixed on Gannett. He was in and out of the courtroom in about eight minutes.

Outside it was a different story, with about 100 supporters watching the arrival and departure of one of the NBA's brightest young stars. There were cheers when he came and went, and someone called out "Kobe is innocent!" as he arrived in a sport utility vehicle.

His wife, Vanessa, who appeared by his side when he tearfully confessed to adultery, was not present.

Bryant had tried to get out of the appearance, which meant little legally but provided the world images of the basketball star standing before a judge in a case that has already damaged his career.

Robert Pugsley, a criminal law professor at Southwestern University in Los Angeles, predicted Bryant would testify at the Oct. 9 hearing.

"I don't think he's going to want to miss an opportunity to present his side of the story," Pugsley said.

Lakers spokesman John Black said it was too early to tell how the Oct. 9 hearing date will affect Bryant's preseason.

"We'll sit down with Kobe at some point when it makes sense to do that and discuss his plans with him at that time," Black said.

At times, preparation for Bryant's arrival looked more like something for a head of state. A media tent was erected outside the courthouse, authorities brought out the county's only metal detector and sheriff's deputies were called in on overtime to keep order.

Along with the journalists came Bryant's fans -- people like Eric Tison, 30, who drove three hours from Castle Rock, south of Denver.

"I hope he's innocent. I'm here to support him as a basketball player," said Tison, wearing a Los Angeles Lakers No. 8 jersey and hoping for an autograph. "What goes on in his personal life now is taking away from the game."


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