In court of public opinion, Kobe Bryant already ahead

Updated: August 7, 2003, 5:19 PM ET

EAGLE, Colo. -- When it comes down to deciding Kobe Bryant's innocence or guilt, the court of public opinion may be the most important court of all.

If that's the case, Bryant could be well on his way to acquittal.

Bryant's once pristine image may be taking a beating over a charge that he sexually assaulted a young hotel worker, but he's got two things going for him as the case plays out over upcoming months.

First, he's got plenty of money for anything his defense needs.

More importantly, he's no Mike Tyson.

"When you look at celebrity trials you can divide them up into celebrities that people like and celebrities they don't like," said Howard Varinsky, a noted jury consultant.

"Kobe is very likeable, and that's what they're going to be banking on."

If anyone needed to be reminded of that, they just had to be outside the Eagle County courthouse Wednesday when Bryant made his first formal court appearance on a charge he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old woman on June 30.

In the parking lot were cars festooned with balloons of Lakers' purple and gold. Fans wore Kobe jerseys and cheered his name as he stepped out of a sport utility vehicle to enter the courthouse.

Even some of the alleged victim's so-called friends were quick to turn on her.

"She's a really nice girl, don't get me wrong," said Jessica Willenborg, a high school classmate of the woman. "But she's more along the lines of being two-faced with people."

Willenborg and a friend spent nearly four hours the night before the hearing making jersey replicas to wear. On them, they wrote "Not guilty. Save a hero."

"I wanted to stand up and show him I believe in him," Willenborg said.

Bryant likely didn't see that support. He got out of his Suburban, looked straight ahead and walked the few steps into the courtroom without acknowledging the crowd cheering his name. He then repeated the process on the way out.

Prosecutors should take notice, though. They've got a jury pool to fill, and it's not going to be easy to find 12 jurors who aren't sympathetic or awestruck by the superstar with a smile as dazzling as his moves on the court.

If they need a lesson in history, all they have to do is look at the O.J. Simpson trial. Remember, all the DNA, all the scientific evidence in the world couldn't get a jury to convict Simpson of murder.

And then there's Tyson. His case is remarkably similar to that of Bryant. Both were visiting celebrities in a hotel room with a woman who may have wanted to be there in the beginning but then changed her mind.

But Tyson and Bryant are alike only because they are both huge celebrities. Tyson was, and is, a dark, brooding figure prone to violence and used to having his way.

Not so with Bryant, whose biggest problem before being charged with sexual assault was getting into a fight with teammate Shaquille O'Neal -- and no one blamed him for that. Indeed, Bryant's image was that of affable celebrity, someone unaffected by fame or the estimated $25 million a year in salary and endorsements he brought in.

Bryant did all the right things Wednesday, mostly because he was well coached by his legal defense team. He didn't play to the fans and looked directly at the judge during the entire hearing, which took a little more than seven minutes.

The charge against him is so serious he faces a possible life prison sentence if convicted. His lawyers know he has to act contrite and respectful if he is to keep the sympathies of the average person.

His lawyers also know those average people tend to end up on juries. And those average people probably watched Bryant's tearful appearance with his wife, Vanessa, after the charge was filed in which he declared he was guilty of adultery but nothing else.

Those average people know Bryant bought his wife a $4 million ring, and that the two exchanged bracelets professing their love for each other.

When Bryant returns to court, it will be for an Oct. 9 preliminary hearing in which prosecutors will lay out details of the alleged assault in open court. Those details could end up being very ugly and nasty, assuming prosecutors have the case they believe they have against Bryant.

That's why it's important for Bryant to take the lead in public opinion right now.

"If they can farm public opinion they're also getting future jurors out of it," Varinsky said. "The battle is for public opinion and future jurors. They want to instill reasonable doubt on future jurors now."

To do so, there's likely to be a lot of maneuvering of facts and images in the next few months. Shortly after Wednesday's hearing, though, workers were putting television lights away and packing up dozens of satellite television trucks.

The circus was leaving town, for now.

But the best act may just be beginning.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index