Experts praise Gannett's thorough job

Updated: October 16, 2003, 11:28 AM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- The judge presiding over the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case so far has received high marks from analysts who praised his handling of complicated legal questions in one of the highest-profile cases to hit Colorado.

Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett, who typically deals with petty crimes such as theft, has taken an unusually large role in the case.

Most Colorado county judges view their role in preliminary hearings as a quick rubber stamp to advance the case to higher court. But Gannett is striving to give both prosecutors and Bryant's attorneys a fair chance, Denver defense attorney Scott Robinson said.

"He's trying his best to be fair and doesn't want to be as abrupt and peremptory as county court judges are in many other counties who view sitting in preliminary hearings as a bit of a waste of time," Robinson said.

"Those judges tend to have what I call a `let's get on with it' attitude and view their role as passing the case along."

Gannett is carefully considering each of his moves in the case not only to ensure fairness but also to show the world that a small-town judicial system can handle the case, said Oakland, Calif., jury consultant Howard Varinsky.

"This publicity is similar to the O.J. (Simpson) publicity," Varinsky said. "I don't know how he's doing, but it is a massive animal to control."

Gannett will resume the preliminary hearing on Wednesday, six days after he shut it down when defense attorney Pamela Mackey questioned the sexual history of the woman who accused the 25-year-old Los Angeles Lakers guard of sexual assault.

Bryant, who is free on $25,000 bond, will have to return to Eagle.

He faces up to life in prison if convicted of the single count of felony sexual assault. He has said he and the 19-year-old Eagle woman had consensual sex June 30 while he stayed at the mountain resort where she worked.

In a preliminary hearing, prosecutors try to present enough evidence to convince a judge that the defendant should stand trial.

Gannett might have been able to end the hearing when he believed prosecutors had reached that threshold, but likely wanted to give the defense a chance to present its case as well, analysts said.

Many analysts believe prosecutors have already presented enough evidence to justify a trial through testimony from the lead investigator, who said Bryant grabbed the woman around the neck and raped her after she said no.

Afterward, Bryant asked the woman not to tell anybody, the investigator testified.

When the hearing resumes, some legal analysts speculate Mackey may have another surprise up her sleeve -- a rare move to subpoena witnesses to testify.

"The rules specifically allow the defense to put on its own evidence," said Denver defense attorney Dan Recht.

Mackey has declined to talk to reporters about the case.

Gannett, who said the hearing had not progressed as expected, also said both sides had requested that all or parts of the rest of the hearing be closed to the public.

University of Colorado School of Law professor Christopher Mueller said Mackey likely wants to pursue her line of questioning about the woman's sexual history, "and she can't really do that in an open hearing if you're going to try to protect the complaining witness against embarrassment."

He said Gannett probably will ask Mackey to provide him with information to back up her suggestion before allowing her to go ahead with questions about the woman's sexual past.

That could provide Gannett justification for closing all or part of the rest of the hearing, Mueller said.

Gannett is not expected to decide Wednesday whether to advance Bryant's case to state district court. He has said he plans to issue a written decision later, something Robinson said was surprising and unusual.

"I think it really reflects an intention by Judge Gannett to be as circumspect and thorough as he can be, recognizing that a ruling from the bench may not appear to be as learned as a carefully crafted opinion," Robinson said.

Gannett, known by many lawyers as a compassionate, fair judge, was a Pitkin County sheriff's deputy and municipal judge before being appointed an Eagle County judge in 1987. He went into private practice in 1993 and returned to the county bench in 2002.

"He's a real straight player and has a real sense of justice," said Eagle attorney Jim Fahrenholtz.

Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press