Bryant won't be asked to enter plea

Updated: August 6, 2003, 9:42 AM ET
Associated Press

EAGLE, Colo. -- Across the street from the Eagle County courthouse, a mini-community of satellite trucks and television tents has suddenly sprouted. Inside, final touches were being put on a security plan more suited for a head of state.

Kobe Bryant arrives Wednesday for his first court hearing in his sexual assault case, a whirlwind appearance that means little legally but has sparked a media frenzy in this otherwise sleepy mountain town.

"If there's not a change of venue this is just the beginning of the headache,'' Eagle police Officer Paul Ramsay said while reviewing security Tuesday.

Bryant will jet into a nearby airport, spend about 10 minutes in court to be advised of the charge against him and leave. The session, which begins at 6 p.m. ET, is expected to be brief, but the stark pictures and video of the 24-year-old NBA superstar in court will leave an enduring image.

Bryant hoped to avoid his initial appearance, but Judge Frederick Gannett ruled otherwise. His attorneys also lost their battle to keep cameras out of the courtroom.

Now, Bryant begins the formal part of what could be a long legal fight of a felony charge that has damaged his reputation and could put him in prison.

Lawyers for both sides are trying to keep secret details of the accusations by the 19-year-old hotel worker who came to his room June 30 at a nearby mountain resort.

Gannett issued a gag order for those involved in the case and sealed police and investigator records. That hasn't stopped some media outlets from quoting sources -- usually unidentified -- about the woman's condition and frame of mind after she left Bryant's room the night.

"This already extensive media coverage has erupted into an intensive media campaign to expose every detail of the alleged incident,'' prosecutors wrote in arguing to keep the evidence sealed.

Bryant won't be asked to enter a plea Wednesday, only to acknowledge the charge against him. The judge could then set a timetable for future court sessions that will probably lead to a preliminary hearing, when evidence against Bryant will be made public.

Authorities are taking no chances for a hearing that has drawn so much media that seats in the small courtroom had to be rationed and an overflow tent for media set up outside.

Officials plan to clear the courthouse, bring out their only metal detector and post sheriff's deputies everywhere to try to ensure there aren't any problems.

Greg Crittenden, an attorney in the district attorney's office, told the judge last week that the case required special treatment.

"We're dealing with a celebrity that's recognized worldwide and for that reason we have to look at this not as any other case,'' Crittenden said.

Indeed, though the county fair and rodeo closed Sunday, the circus is now in town. Motels in the town of 3,500 that straddles Interstate 70 about 30 miles from Vail have "No vacancy'' signs, and restaurants are doing booming business.

Townspeople seem to be tiring of the media attention, as evidenced by a sign outside the Eagle Pharmacy downtown pleading for people to be quiet.

"Support the families with a no comment,'' it reads.

This will be a different kind of court for Bryant than the one where he knows all the moves. In this court there will be no cheering spectators. And lawyers will coach Bryant on what to say and how to say it.

Of course, the stakes are also a lot higher than a Los Angeles Lakers' playoff loss, which reduced Bryant to tears a few months ago. If convicted, he faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine of up to $750,000.

A trial appears inevitable, unless Bryant's attorneys can persuade the judge to throw the case out for lack of evidence at his preliminary hearing. Even if they are successful, the evidence made public at the hearing will probably further stain the once clean-cut image of one of America's most celebrated athletes.

"Once the accusation is brought to the police it's almost impossible to settle it,'' said Florida attorney Roy Black, who won an acquittal for William Kennedy Smith in a 1991 rape trial. "If he pleads guilty he loses endorsements and his popularity as a player.''

With a smile as dazzling as his play, Bryant was a superstar who made all the right moves and said all the right things.

Now, he is an admitted adulterer, at the very least, and he has already lost one endorsement.

Bryant's wife, Vanessa, sat by his side at an extraordinary news conference where he said the sex with his accuser was consensual.

The woman will never be the same, either. She is well known in Eagle, and her friends at first were more than eager to discuss the woman's virtues and what they thought were her faults.

Bryant, free on $25,000 bond, is to begin preseason practice late next month with the Lakers in Hawaii. The judge has put no restrictions on his travel.


Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press

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