Pressing rape charges is never easy, but it's far tougher when
the defendant is a celebrity.
That's just one of the lessons to come out of the Kobe Bryant
case, in which charges were abruptly dismissed this week. The legal
maneuvering that has been watched around the world also raises
questions about the effectiveness of state "shield laws" for rape
victims, designed to protect an alleged assault victim's sexual
history from being admitted as evidence in court. Ultimately, the
case points to deeper issues about gender.
Indeed, as lawyers ramp up for the civil suit by the 20-year-old
who has accused the Los Angeles Lakers star of rape, the whole saga
reverberates with questions of celebrity power, money, and the
rights of women in society.
"The case disintegrated because of the ineffectiveness of the
rape shield law," says Michelle Anderson, a professor at Villanova
University School of Law who specializes in rape law, citing the
inadvertent leaks of highly personal information, excessive pretrial
scrutiny of the accuser's past - both in the media and in court -
and the death threats that ensued. "The fear of being put on trial
themselves is why rape victims don't come forward."
No big surprise
That's one reason few experts were surprised that the charges
were dismissed in the high-profile case, which has been steadily
crumbling for weeks. Prosecution was always going to be an uphill
battle, and some developments - the decision by the court to admit
substantial evidence relative to the accuser's sexual history,
leaked personal details, and her decision in August to file a civil
suit, opening the door to the suggestion she wished to profit - made
The case is extraordinary in terms of celebrity billing, its
sordid alleged plot line, and the attendant media storm, but,
regardless of Bryant's innocence or guilt, it has jump-started a
national debate around rape-shield laws. Some have argued that the
laws, designed to keep a woman's name and sexual past out of court,
were unfair to Mr. Bryant. Victims' advocates say this case is
exemplifies why such laws need to be strengthened.
That the case has been dropped for a civil suit is not an
uncommon trend in celebrity cases. Mike DeMarco, a former state
prosecutor in Boston and trial lawyer with Kirkpatrick & Lockhart,
says the accuser of the Bryant case had immediately hired top-notch
lawyers for the civil suit. "[If] you want money here, that's the
justice you seek, you go to civil court.... You want to hit him in
the pocketbook instead of put him in jail," says Mr. DeMarco.
The criminal case can also entail a gamble. It is essentially a
preview - with evidence, strategies, as well as an outcome - laid
out before the civil trial begins. It is also covered in newspapers
and spun by commentators, and people develop biases and attitudes. …