Press drops prior-restraint suit in Kobe Bryant case

By The Associated Press
08.04.04

DENVER — Because the judge in the Kobe Bryant rape trial has reluctantly released most of the transcripts of a closed hearing, attorneys for media groups said yesterday they would not ask Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to order the disclosure of the edited information.

District Judge Terry Ruckriegle redacted 68 lines out of hundreds in the transcripts he released on Aug. 2 and in late July stemming from the closed hearing in June.

"We are gratified that Judge Ruckriegle has responded to the directives of Justice Breyer and the Colorado Supreme Court, and has lifted the prior restraint," Steven Zansberg, one of the media attorneys, told the Associated Press, one of the news organizations involved in the lawsuit to release the transcripts.

"We got the relief we were seeking, which is that these transcripts not be subject to a prior restraint," he told The Denver Post, which was also part of the lawsuit.

Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, defended the media's role in forcing the release of the information. She said it may be distasteful, but it was important to preserve the right to publish information that authorities want withheld.

"The issue was not so much the content of these transcripts but unconstitutional prior restraint," said Kirtley, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Arlington, Va.

With the government restricting more information after the Sept. 11 attacks, this is not the time to allow further erosion of First Amendment rights, she said.

"I think it is a victory for the press," said Lucy Dalglish, current executive director for the Reporters Committee, in a Denver Post story. "My understanding was that Judge Ruckriegle recognized that he had to release this stuff because ... Breyer pretty much said this (the prior restraint) was very suspect."

Some First Amendment advocates still said the press "should have pursued the case to the full U.S. Supreme Court," The Denver Post said, "because still standing is a new legal precedent in Colorado that seemingly allows judges to restrain the media from reporting on information obtained legally from the courts."

But Zansberg told the Denver newspaper: "Looking at the totality of the judicial decisions made here, we're comfortable that these events are not likely to recur and that the doctrine that presumes prior restraints are unconstitutional remains intact."

The woman who accused Kobe Bryant of rape will have to discuss with prosecutors whether she will go ahead with the criminal case because she fears the release of court documents about her sex life threatens her chance of getting a fair hearing, one of her lawyers said today.

John Clune said his 20-year-old client would have to talk to prosecutors soon about that and would also consider whether to file a civil suit against the NBA star.

A criminal case requires a higher standard of proof to convict — beyond a reasonable doubt — and punishment can involve a prison sentence. In this case, Bryant faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000.

In a civil case, a slightly lower standard of proof is required to convict — a preponderance of evidence — and punishment is usually a monetary award.

Some 200 pages from a closed hearing in June were released late Aug. 2 by Ruckriegle under pressure from the U.S. Supreme Court. The documents had been mistakenly e-mailed to the AP and six other news organizations in June.

The documents include testimony from a DNA expert for the defense, Elizabeth Johnson, who says she is convinced the accuser had sex with someone after Bryant and before she contacted authorities — a claim Clune has vehemently denied. Johnson cites DNA evidence found during hospital examinations.

The defense wants to use the expert's testimony to back its claim that the woman's injuries could have been caused during sex with someone other than the Los Angeles Lakers player.

Bryant, 25, has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault, saying he had consensual sex with the woman at a Vail-area resort last summer.

The judge has said the defense can present evidence about the woman's sexual activities in the three days before a July 1, 2003, hospital exam, saying it is relevant to help determine the cause of her injuries, the source of DNA evidence and her credibility.

Legal analysts were divided on what impact the new information would have once it is introduced as evidence.