Foul Play in the Court

Skirting Convention

Kobe Bryant’s career was a disaster waiting to happen: He’s got dashing good looks, a whole lot of talent and a terrible ineptitude for discretion. The pride and joy of the Lakers was just too busy having fun to realize that the media was committed to following his life on—and off—the court.

A preliminary hearing was held yesterday to determine whether the Los Angeles Lakers guard will stand trial on a charge of sexually assaulting a Colorado resort worker over the summer. He claims the two had consensual sex. She claims otherwise. But the outcome in this case is ultimately less relevant than the overarching impact of the trial, which will extend far beyond Eagle County and the Lakers’ line-up. The Kobe Bryant case has made headlines across the country and millions of people—for better or worse—will be following it closely. What actually happened inside that Colorado hotel room may never be known—but thanks to how this case has been handled, one thing has become all too clear: if you want to charge rape, be prepared to have your entire identity raped too.

Of course the defendant can be a victim, too. Accusing a man of rape is one of the most powerful accusations a woman can make. Even if the claim is completely fallacious, a rape charge will undoubtedly undermine a man’s credibility for the rest of his life. Allegations should always be handled with utmost sensitivity. But this must extend to both sides. Defendants deserve a fair trial, and the alleged victims deserve to be treated considerately. Unfortunately, this necessary level of prudence has been conspicuously absent from the Bryant trial.

The NBA star is involved in a classic “he said/she said” case—the kind that tends to be tough to prove and or tricky to defend. In cases like this, many defense attorneys resort to attacking the alleged rape victim’s credibility and blaming her promiscuity for the incident. In another high profile rape case in 1991, William Kennedy Smith, a nephew of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was charged with raping Patricia Bowman at the Kennedy estate in Florida. His defense team hired private investigators to look into Bowman’s background and obtain her medical records. The defense lawyers explained to the media that they wanted the files because they suspected that Bowman was mentally disturbed and promiscuous. While the judge ultimately excluded the evidence, the highly publicized controversy shifted the public’s attention to her motives—instead of his—and Smith was ultimately acquitted.

Bryant’s defense team has shown signs of a similarly perverted tactic—focusing their efforts on publicly disparaging Bryant’s accuser. His lawyers have asked a judge for access to medical records of the woman, who was treated for a psychological breakdown last January. Of course, if evidence is relevant to the credibility of the accuser, then perhaps it should be admissible. But that matter should be decided in the courtroom—not on the pages of a newspaper. In this particular case, the records have absolutely no relation to the night of the incident and Colorado has strict laws against releasing such information. The defense team is well aware of these restrictions, but their motive is to exploit the media and humiliate Bryant’s accuser as the request will plant seeds of doubt concerning the victim’s emotional stability. Thanks to the extensive media coverage, the contention over the circumstantial medical records has become public knowledge. Even if the files are ultimately inadmissible, Eagle County residents—who will compose the jury pool—will be well aware that such records exist.

Beyond the conniving tactics of the defense lawyers, the Internet has contributed equally, if not more so, to the belittling of Bryant’s accuser. A representative of Lycos.com confirmed that besides the War in Iraq and the 2000 Presidential Election, the Kobe Bryant case is the most popular web search in the history of the Internet. Websites have already revealed the woman’s identity—along with her address, her high school yearbook picture, phone number, and tax information on her parents’ home. Some websites lambaste her as a whore. Others gossip about everything from her emotional problems to her favorite color. One astute visitor to a cyber-forum on the subject proclaimed: “This is just another slut trying to get money out of having sex.”

A controversial rape case has turned into the latest pop culture fad: Young boys strut around in “Free Kobe” merchandise as if rooting for a team. Internet surfers wage online votes on whether the woman is lying. Talk show hosts joke about the woman’s failed American Idol bid. And as the craze grows, the public’s implicit attitude toward sexual assault has been undermined. People have made a mockery out of a very serious allegation, and their conduct will certainly leave a lasting impact.

Unfortunately the real losers in this media circus are the victims of less publicized assaults. Regardless of whether Bryant’s accuser is telling the truth, her sour experience will leave an enduring impression. Rape survivors nationwide are watching as this young woman’s credibility is publicly scrutinized. Every minute detail of her life has been put on display for critique and criticism—and she is not the one on trial. After what this 19-year-old woman has gone through, and the public’s reaction to her charges, sexual assault victims will no doubt ask themselves: Is coming forward really worth it? Rape is already grossly underreported; the last thing victims need is more discouragement.

Lia C. Larson ’05 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.