Bryant Case Aftermath: A Rape-Law Debate ; the Dismissal of the Kobe Bryant Case Has Stirred Talk about Whether to Change Shield Laws for Accusers

By Sara B. Miller and Amanda Paulson writers of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 3, 2004 | Go to article overview

Bryant Case Aftermath: A Rape-Law Debate ; the Dismissal of the Kobe Bryant Case Has Stirred Talk about Whether to Change Shield Laws for Accusers


Sara B. Miller and Amanda Paulson writers of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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 it harder.

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. …

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