Lakers star will return to court next month

Updated: October 21, 2003, 3:44 PM ET news services

EAGLE, Colo. -- A judge said prosecutors have presented a "minimal amount of evidence" against Kobe Bryant, but enough for the NBA star to stand trial on a charge of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old resort worker.

Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett ruled Monday that the evidence shown at a preliminary hearing -- including photographs of the woman's injuries and blood on her underwear -- indicated "submission and force." But he chided prosecutors for offering conflicting information.

Kobe's legal team responds
After the announcement by Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett that Kobe Bryant will be required to stand trial on sexual assault charges, Bryant's attorneys released the following statement:

"We are, of course, disappointed by the decision today.

"As the court notes in its decision, almost all of the evidence viewed either independently or collectively does not support a finding of probable cause -- let alone proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the test to be applied at trial.

"It is only because the court was constrained by Colorado case law requiring ALL inferences to be made in the light most favorable to the prosecution that this matter barely survived the test of the preliminary hearing.

"Judge Gannett's decision does not change the fact that this case cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and should never have been filed. The standard at the preliminary hearing is that of probable cause. The standard at trial is a far higher burden: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. When this case is tested by that standard, Kobe Bryant will be found innocent.

"Because Kobe Bryant is innocent, the prosecution's case simply had to be tested despite the fact that the odds were against us prevailing.

"We will prevail at trial."

"Simply put, this court could not make a finding of probable cause... absent reliance upon those inferences supportive of the people's case," Gannett said.

The next appearance for the Los Angeles Lakers' guard was set for Nov. 10 in district court. He could face life in prison if convicted.

Bryant, 25, has said the sex was consensual. His attorneys suggested the woman's injuries came during sex with other men in the days before her June 30 encounter with Bryant at a posh resort in nearby Edwards.

Gannett noted that only part of the evidence had been introduced so far, and said a statement from the woman that she was raped -- which has not been introduced in open court -- could not be ignored.

The defense can appeal Gannett's ruling, but such appeals are rare, legal experts said.

District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said he was pleased by the decision, "although we had confidence all along in the case."

Prosecutors in Colorado almost always succeed in persuading a judge to order a trial after a preliminary hearing because the standard of proof required is relatively low. The standard of proof at trial is much higher.

Bryant's attorneys issued a statement saying that although they knew their chances of getting a dismissal had been slim, "the prosecution's case simply had to be tested."

"The standard at trial is a far higher burden: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. When this case is tested by that standard, Kobe Bryant will be found innocent," Pamela Mackey and co-counsel Hal Haddon said in a written statement.

At the Lakers' El Segundo, Calif., practice facility, Bryant was asked before the ruling how much anxiety he was feeling. "Basketball, zero anxiety. Other stuff, a little anxiety," he said.

"But now I just pretty much, you know, give it up. I've pretty much done all I can. Now I'll let God carry me the rest of the way. I feel comfortable with that," he said.

John Clune, the lawyer representing Bryant's accuser, declined comment.

Bryant told reporters Monday that recent legal events have not changed his mind and he still would opt out of his contract at the end of the season. He has the option of playing for the Lakers next season for $14.6 million or becoming an unrestricted free agent.

The Lakers offered Bryant a three-year, $54.8 million extension more than a year ago and that offer, club sources told The Los Angeles Times, remains on the table.

At Bryant's next court appearance he will be advised of his rights, the charge and the possible penalties. He could also enter a plea.

Unless Bryant waives his right to a speedy trial, the trial would be scheduled within six months of his plea.

Gannett's comments on the evidence indicate he had questions about the prosecution's case, legal analysts said.

Judges normally don't issue written rulings after preliminary hearings, and the fact that Gannett wrote his suggests the case is fraught with difficulties, said Scott Robinson, a Denver defense attorney.

"The reality is that unless there is significantly more substantial evidence available at trial, and a suitable explanation for some of the puzzling physical evidence which surfaced last week, a conviction looks like a completely unlikely scenario," Robinson said.

Former prosecutor Karen Steinhauser said it's too early to judge the strength of the case based on Gannett's order.

"What he said is that the prosecution did what they are allowed to do, and that is present most of their evidence by way of hearsay and just enough evidence to get over the probable cause threshold," she said.

Hurlbert has said he held back some evidence, knowing a preliminary hearing requires a judge to look at the evidence in a way that is most favorable to prosecutors.

The preliminary hearing lasted nearly two days and included graphic testimony about an encounter prosecutors say turned violent after flirting by both Bryant and his accuser.

Sheriff's Detective Doug Winters testified the woman went to Bryant's room at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera shortly after checking him in.

The two chatted and began kissing. But a few minutes later, Bryant grabbed the woman by the throat, bent her over a chair and raped her, asking her several times not to tell anybody, Winters testified.

She told Bryant "no" at least twice, and he stopped only after she pulled his hand off her neck, Winters said.

The woman was left with vaginal tears consistent with assault and her blood was found on Bryant's shirt, Winters said.

But he acknowledged under cross-examination by Mackey that the woman had sex with another man shortly before her encounter with Bryant. She also didn't tell Winters initially that she had said "no."

The defense argued that semen and pubic hair found in the woman's underwear that weren't from Bryant prove he is innocent -- an argument ridiculed by prosecutor Greg Crittenden.

At Bryant's trial, any discussion of the woman's sexual history could be limited by Colorado's rape shield law, unless Bryant's attorneys successfully argue the evidence fits into one of the few exceptions.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.