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Archive for Thursday, July 31, 2003

Media groups seek court records

Judge in Bryant case hasn’t allowed release physical evidence in case

July 31, 2003

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— Despite warnings from a judge about too much publicity in the Kobe Bryant case, media organizations want a look at sealed court records about the sexual assault allegation against the NBA star.

The records include details about the accusation and information used to obtain arrest and search warrants, such as physical evidence.

Bryant, an All-Star guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman at an exclusive mountain resort June 30. He has said the sex was consensual.

Eagle County judge Russell Granger ordered the records sealed when he issued an arrest warrant for Bryant in early July.

County judge Frederick Gannett will hear arguments today during a four-hour hearing on whether the records should be made public. He agreed Wednesday to allow cameras in the courtroom for that hearing.

Attorneys for media organizations -- including the Los Angeles Times, Denver Post and NBC -- have argued that many details have been publicized already, some by Bryant and district attorney Mark Hurlbert. They also contend the public should have the opportunity to determine the veracity of statements made by those involved in the case.

Hurlbert on Wednesday asked the judge to postpone the hearing, saying a 230-page filing from media attorneys he received late Tuesday was "untimely, disorganized and overly lengthy." The judge denied the request.

Hurlbert and defense lawyers want to keep the records sealed, arguing that publicity could affect Bryant's right to a fair trial. Defense attorneys Pamela Mackey and Hal Haddon also have asked Gannett to reconsider an earlier order allowing cameras in the courtroom during Bryant's Aug. 6 initial appearance.

Bryant, 24, surrendered to authorities July 4 and was released on $25,000 bail.

Gannett has ordered a limit on public comment about the case by attorneys, authorities and others, including Bryant and any witnesses. He said the order was necessary to guarantee a fair trial.

Gannett also warned organizations not to publish or broadcast the name or photograph of any witness, juror, potential juror or the alleged victim and her family on the courthouse grounds. Any organization violating the order could be denied a seat in the courtroom.

New York criminal defense attorney Lawrence Goldman said Wednesday that releasing sealed records would jeopardize Bryant's right to a fair trial.

"The danger is it will prejudice the jury. It would obviously get great distribution in the press and the jury will see only one side in the case," said Goldman, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"And frankly, you're dealing with Kobe Bryant, and Kobe Bryant is a celebrity. The only evidence that's going to come out presumably is going to be negative and will hurt his image personally, commercially and in terms of his stature as one of the great basketball players."

Legal experts said some of the sealed documents probably contain information that would not be admissible as evidence and could jeopardize potential jurors' impartiality.

But judges typically have to explain their decisions and have good reasons to keep documents sealed, said Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota.

"Sometimes courts decide to seal everything to be safe, but that's not very sound reasoning from a legal standpoint," said Kirtley, former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"Courts are supposed to be open and the nature of how courts do justice and how they get to the point of doing justice is supposed to be subject to public scrutiny."

Under the law, court records are presumed to be open to public review unless there is a compelling reason to seal them, Kirtley said. The most compelling reason, she said, is protecting the defendant's right to a fair trial, and judges' decisions to keep some records sealed while releasing others have been upheld in courts nationwide.

As legal wrangling continued Wednesday, town and county officials met in front of the courthouse with representatives of numerous news organizations to plan coverage, down to where each television network can set up cameras, how and where to install temporary phone lines, and where reporters can park their cars.

Several dozen news organizations are expected to show up for Bryant's initial appearance, during which he will be formally advised of his rights, the charge against him and the possible penalties.

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