Error in Eagle County sheriffs' judgment

An Eagle County sheriff's office T-shirt making light of Kobe's legal troubles is no joking matter.

Updated: November 17, 2003, 9:45 PM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN the Magazine

The same sheriff's office that defied its district attorney to pursue and obtain an arrest warrant for Kobe Bryant also ignored a judge's order not to publicly express an opinion about Bryant's guilt or innocence by ordering T-shirts with a hangman on the front and Kobe's No. 8 and disparaging remarks on the back.

Take your time and read that again. It took more than one pass before I could suspend my disbelief, too.

I've stayed away from writing about Bryant's legal troubles in Colorado, largely because I've spent many years around Kobe -- all of it before this summer -- and none around the young woman he's accused of raping. Six months ago I would've said I know Kobe better than the woman, and while that still may be true, the fact that he finds himself in this mess runs counter to everything I'd previously believed to know about him. I don't know what happened in Colorado, and I can't give you a fair assessment of the two people involved. So let's steer clear of all that for now.

What I do know, without a shred of doubt, is that I would never want my freedom protected by the Eagle County Sheriff's Office. My odds might be better since prosecuting me wouldn't hold quite the same cachet as putting the screws to an NBA star, but those are dice I wouldn't want to roll.

I've had more than one legal expert tell me, based on the evidence they've seen, that this case never would've gone this far if it didn't involve a big-time star and small-town law enforcement. That is, at best, an educated observation and I didn't make much of it at the time. I do now.

Forget, if you can, that the department accepted two sample T-shirts that read on the back either "I'm not a rapist; I'm just a cheater" or listed the costs of the flight, hotel and knee surgery and then ended with the line, "Not bringing your wife to Colorado with you -- priceless." Forget even that the subsequent order was for 76 T-shirts, which sounds as if someone planned to put a few under the ol' Christmas tree. Let's even overlook the complete disregard for the alleged victim's feelings reflected in the plan to have 76 mini-billboards of the incident strolling around town.

They are supposed to protect and serve -- not just Eagle County residents as I understand it, but everyone and anyone who happens to be within their jurisdiction. If the T-shirts (or the mindset reflected by them) in any way impact the outcome of this trial, they've failed to do that.
What confirms for me that Joe Hoy and his office are enthralled by the fame of the accused is the T-shirts' value to the sheriff. He said the T-shirts' appeal is as "a memento or souvenir." He added that the two free samples from the T-shirt company will be kept in the office archives. What? How many other souvenir T-shirts or coffee mugs are in those archives?

This is not akin to keeping a crucial piece of discovered evidence for posterity. First of all, no crime has been proved. Second, the T-shirts are nothing more than bad taste advertised. Even if Kobe were found guilty, it would take someone truly twisted, in light of the nature of the alleged crime, to want to commemorate it.

The original plan, the sheriff said, was to give the proceeds from the T-shirts to a battered women's shelter. I wait to hear how the sheriff plans to raise money for the shelter instead, since, if we are to believe that this was simply a case of misdirected good intentions, the ends still will be served, even if the means have been ruled obscene.

You can dismiss this as simply a case of bad judgment. You can even say that since the order was cancelled, the damage has been averted. You can even say Kobe wandered into equally questionable territory by paraphrasing Martin Luther King: "An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere," shortly after he was charged. Or by getting, after the fact, his first-ever tattoo to prominently honor his wife and daughter.

Whatever all that says, it only says it about Kobe. Hoy and his department have a larger responsibility. They are supposed to protect and serve -- not just Eagle County residents, as I understand it, but everyone and anyone who happens to be within their jurisdiction. If the T-shirts (or the mindset reflected by them) in any way impact the outcome of this trial, they've failed to do that.

Since Hoy approved the original order and still defends the right of anyone in his office to wear one of the shirts on their own time, it has to make you wonder what other sorts of incredibly bad judgments are being made in Eagle County. Judgments about, say, what might constitute evidence worthy of an arrest warrant. Without which no one is likely ever to have heard of Sheriff Hoy and his taste in T-shirts.

And Ones
Morris Peterson scored the winning basket in crunch time in Thursday's win over the Mavericks on a sweet reverse layup. Consider it showcasing his wares. Peterson, who has not been in the Raptors' regular rotation for most of the season, is available and the Nuggets, Knicks, Jazz, Magic and Hornets have all expressed interest ... Tony Delk may be on the move again. League rules prohibit the Mavs from moving their recent acquisition until Dec. 21, but supposedly he's already out of favor in Dallas ... Warriors center Erick Dampier was on the trading block this summer. There's been no indication if his current 13-point, 17-rebound averages have taken him off or made him more attractive ... Word out of Detroit is that more than half of their practices are spent on Larry Brown chewing out rookie Darko Milicic for not knowing where to go or what to do. Which might explain why the No. 2 pick has played one minute in four games.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. Also, click here to send Ric a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer

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