Judge will decide on litany of issues

Updated: June 21, 2004, 4:50 PM ET
Associated Press

EAGLE, Colo. -- In what is considered a first in Colorado courts, prosecutors and Kobe Bryant's lawyers are wrangling over details of how to guide jurors in determining the NBA star's guilt or innocence.

Defense attorneys want state District Judge Terry Ruckriegle to tell jurors they must acquit Bryant if they determine Bryant's accuser consented to submit to sex.

That issue is among several brought up in the sexual assault case against Bryant that have not come up before in Colorado courts. Bryant's high-powered defense team has flooded prosecutors with paper, filing motions and seeking rulings on anything they believe could lead to an acquittal, or a reversal on appeal if Bryant is convicted.

The Los Angeles Lakers guard was scheduled to return to Eagle on Monday for a two-day hearing, during which the judge could set a date for the trial. One more pretrial hearing is scheduled for late July.

In a case that has generated widespread publicity on topics including graphic details of the encounter between Bryant and a then-19-year-old hotel worker, a dry discussion over legal technicalities pales.

But the jury-instruction debate is a fight over fundamental questions that could determine whether Bryant is convicted on a charge that could send him to prison for life.

"It's earthshaking in a sexual assault consent-defense case, but it has none of the pizzaz of rape-shield motions and other motions that are about a fact rather than about the law," said Larry Pozner, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Part of the hearing will deal with the "rape-shield" motion filed by Bryant's lawyers, seeking to introduce information about Bryant's accuser sex life in the days surrounding her encounter with Bryant.

Under the defense's proposed jury instructions, prosecutors would have to prove separately and beyond a reasonable doubt that the woman did not consent to submit to sex.

Prosecutors say the type of assault Bryant is charged with includes an element of submission -- "against the alleged victim's will" -- meaning the question of consent to submission does not apply. They also contend the defense is mistaken in saying prosecutors must prove Bryant knew the woman did not consent.

"These are extremely interesting and important legal issues that legal scholars debate and judges must decide, but they don't play well on TV, they don't write up well in the papers," Pozner said.

Appeals based on mistakes in jury instructions are common, lending additional importance to the issue, said former prosecutor Karen Steinhauser, a visiting professor at the University of Denver College of Law.

"It's all technicalities, but it's technicalities that make the difference in terms of whether a conviction gets sustained or not," she said.

Bryant has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault, saying he had consensual sex with the woman at a Vail-area hotel last summer. If convicted, he faces four years to life in prison, 20 years to life on probation and a fine of up to $750,000.

Also scheduled for this hearing is the conclusion of arguments on the relevance of the Bryant's accuser's sex life, which will occur behind closed doors. Another jury-instruction matter is expected to be brought up as well: Bryant's attorneys want jurors to be told that investigators failed to collect evidence that could suggest Bryant is innocent.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press