Bryant guaranteed more than fair trial

Preliminary hearings began this week in People of the State of Colorado v. Kobe Bean Bryant. Things got off to a dramatic start when Bryant’s attorneys used some low, undignified tactics that surprised even the most weathered critics. The defense team’s approach Thursday was a metaphorical shot fired into the air before the real mudslinging begins. Bryant’s case will be a tragic tribute to criminal trials in the United States today, where money, men and power rule.

Bryant, a 25-year-old Los Angeles Lakers player, is accused of raping a 19-year-old hotel employee during his recent stay in Eagle, Colo. A nurse who examined the victim testified on Thursday and provided photos that show cuts to the victim’s genital area and a bruise on the left side of her jaw.

Victims are protected in Colorado under the rape shield law, which allows for the accuser to remain anonymous and prohibits the defense counsel from bringing up the victim’s past sexual history.

But Bryant’s attorney, Pamela Mackey, ruefully sidestepped the law by asking the nurse who testified if the victim’s injuries were “consistent with someone who had had sex with three different men in three days.” The judge promptly ended the hearing and asked the lawyers to confer in his chambers.

Judge Frederick Gannett has clearly lost his patience with Mackey’s antics. Earlier in the trial, he suggested that Mackey needed “a big muzzle” after she illegally stated the name of the victim six times on one cross-examination. Critics say there is no way it was a mistake. Mackey’s tactics are meant to undermine the rape shield law and begin chipping away at the accuser’s character. The hearing was open to the public and the victim’s name is now more widely known.

It is exactly the kind of cutthroat defense one would expect from Bryant’s team – Mackey successfully defended Colorado Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy against allegations of domestic violence; Mackey’s law partner, Hal Haddon, represented John Ramsey in the lengthy investigation of his daughter Jon Benet’s death. In both cases, the allegations were dropped.

Bryant might not be lucky enough to have the charges dropped, but he can expect to win. Take a look at the precedent set by other famous athletes accused of serious crimes: Kirby Puckett, Minnesota Twins, acquitted of fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct; Mark Chmura, Green Bay Packers, acquitted of second-degree sexual assault of a 17-year-old; Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice and two murder charges were dropped; O.J. Simpson, acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife and her friend Ronald Goldman; for Mike Tyson, boxer, charges of sexual assault in 2001 were not filed by the state of California.

Bryant’s case has only two things going for it – he is famous and he is rich – but in this country, that might be enough to help him win. In cases of sexual assault, trials fall into the he-said/she-said model. As a result, whoever has more power is usually the most believable. Prosecutors have entered photographs, which indicate nonconsensual sex, and one of Bryant’s shirts with the victim’s blood on it. But with top-shelf lawyers behind Bryant’s handsome, famous face, it probably will not matter that the physical evidence is stacking up against him.

Prosecutors have a mountain of cultural bias to climb. Americans worship athletes, good-looking people and the wealthy. We routinely find them innocent of identical crimes for which poor people are incarcerated.

In addition, our culture does not value the safety of women. Every day in the United States, 8,200 women are beaten, 2,345 are raped and 11 are murdered. Murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women in this country. Despite its commonality, assault against women receives little media attention. Perhaps this is because of the intimate nature of the crime and the cultural shame that follows victims.

This week, Gannett might close the trial to the public – especially given Mackey’s noncompliance with the rape shield law. If the trial remains open, we will see familiar fireworks. Regardless of whether the trial is closed, there will be the familiar problems that plague our criminal justice system. No matter the verdict, Bryant’s case attests to the vast and increasing inequalities in our society.