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Archive for Saturday, June 26, 2004

Bryant trial scheduled to start Aug. 27

Transcripts of closed-door hearing mistakenly released to media organizations

June 26, 2004

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— A court reporter accidentally released transcripts of a closed-door hearing in the Kobe Bryant case, setting off a First Amendment battle between the judge and media organizations that received the documents.

Meanwhile, it was announced that Bryant's sexual assault trial would begin Aug. 27 in Eagle, Colo., more than a year after he was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman.

The trial date was set Friday by Judge Terry Ruckriegle. It is expected to last three to four weeks, including the process of questioning and choosing jurors.

A pool of about 1,000 potential jurors will be called. Prosecutors and defense attorneys still are wrangling over what will be included on the 115-item questionnaire.

Bryant, 25, has pleaded not guilty, saying he had consensual sex with the woman at a Vail-area resort June 30, 2003. If convicted, the Los Angeles Lakers star faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation.

NBA teams report for training camp in late September and early October, meaning most of the trial will occur during Bryant's offseason.

The judge issued an order late Thursday threatening contempt of court if the material from the closed-door hearing was published. The news organizations that received the transcripts, including the Associated Press, contended the order was unconstitutional, but none immediately reported on any of the material.

The organizations said they would appeal the order to the Colorado Supreme Court on Monday.

The transcripts were from a two-day closed-door hearing earlier this week that dealt primarily with witness testimony and evidence on the accuser's sex life.

Media attorney Tom Kelley noted that the media organizations had not sought the transcripts, which were sealed by the judge. In such cases, it is up to the organizations to decide whether to publish the material, not a judge or any other government official, he said.

"Regardless of what information may be contained in this hearing transcript, and regardless of whether any individual media outlet ultimately decides to publish it, these members of the press seek to vindicate this fundamental principle, one that lies at the heart of our system of government," Kelley said.

The transcripts were of a hearing earlier this week in Eagle, Colo., before Ruckriegle. The court reporter intended to e-mail them to the judge and other court staff, but accidentally used the wrong group of addresses, state courts spokeswoman Karen Salaz said.

Shortly after he learned of the mistake, Ruckriegle issued an order saying the transcripts were not for public dissemination and that any revelation of their contents could bring a contempt of court citation.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called the judge's order unconstitutional prior restraint.

"The only prior restraints on the media that have any hope of surviving challenge constitutionally would involve a breach of national security, and there's no way this meets that threshold," Dalglish said.

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