DENVER, Colo. – The prosecutor who pursued sexual assault charges against Kobe Bryant 17 years ago believes he would have won a conviction if the case had gone to trial and that the woman who accused Bryant would have received more support if the case had been filed in the current #MeToo environment.
Mark Hurlbert said in an interview with The Associated Press that he is shocked and saddened by the d eaths of Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others this week in a helicopter crash. Still, he remains confident he would have won a conviction against Bryant in 2003-2004 had the accuser not decided to end the criminal case during jury selection in the Rocky Mountain town of Eagle.
“I do think it would be different today,” said Hurlbert, now a chief operating officer for an internet startup in the ski resort town of Breckenridge. “Because of #MeToo, there’s a lot more support for a victim.”
The woman, 19 when the case began, was a former high school cheerleader and college student. She moved out of state as she was pursued relentlessly by reporters during 18 grueling and polarizing months of pretrial discovery and motions.
“She was getting death threats. The tabloids were camped out at her door, and one was trying to infiltrate her therapy sessions” by offering money to a session participant, Hurlbert recalled.
Hurlbert’s comments underscore a shadow — one brought out on social media this week — cast over the outpouring of grief and the celebration of Bryant’s life by a case that forever changed the lives of the NBA champion and the alleged victim. The AP does not generally use the names of alleged victims of sexual assault.
A young Bryant admitted he committed adultery but emphatically insisted he was innocent of assault. If convicted, the then -24-year-old Bryant faced a potential life sentence.
The woman's personal attorneys and her parents had also expressed concern about whether she could get a fair trial following leaks and mistakes by the court, including her name being accidentally posted on a court website.
At one hearing, defense attorney Pamela Mackey stunned observers by suggesting the accuser had sex with multiple partners in a short amount of time surrounding her encounter with Bryant. The woman's sexual history was headline fodder for months before the criminal case was dropped.
“It was just exhausting on top of being threatening," Hurlbert said. “Ultimately, she just decided she could not take it anymore.”
As jury selection began in Eagle County District Court, the woman called Hurlbert to tell him to drop the case. He asked her to reconsider and call in a couple of days. She did; she hadn’t changed her mind.
“I was disappointed. I would have loved to go to trial and have an Eagle County jury decide. But I completely understood,” he said.
After the criminal charge was dropped, Bryant issued a statement apologizing for his “behavior that night and the consequences she suffered.''
Ultimately, Bryant and the woman reached a civil settlement in 2005.
A consequence of the case, Hurlbert recalls: There was a drop in the number of sexual assault cases being reported to local authorities.
“Victims’ advocates reported that their clients felt they didn’t want to be dragged through the mud just like the victim was in the Bryant case,” he said. “They didn’t want to report. It was years later that the numbers were back up.”
Bryant helped the Los Angeles Lakers win three straight NBA championships from 2000-02, but at the time he was accused, he was far from the beloved figure he would become later in his career.
He feuded with teammate Shaquille O’Neal, and he was often viewed as a petulant and selfish player who wouldn’t sacrifice his own game to mesh with the dominant O’Neal. But as long as the Lakers were winning and he was playing brilliantly, many of the negatives were overlooked.
That changed after Colorado.
McDonald’s dropped Bryant as an endorser, Nike halted his use in ads, and sales of his jersey plummeted. The Lakers stuck by Bryant, who sometimes arrived at games after first traveling to appear in court earlier in the day. But coach Phil Jackson acknowledged that their relationship was damaged by the accusations because his own daughter, Brooke, had been the victim of an assault in college.
“The Kobe incident triggered all my unprocessed anger and tainted my perception of him. ... It distorted my view of Kobe throughout the 2003-04 season. No matter what I did to extinguish it, the anger kept smoldering in the background,” Jackson wrote in his book, “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.”
Bryant was a candidate to play for the U.S. Olympic team in 2004, which could have boosted his reputation. Instead, the proceedings left him unavailable to play in Athens, where the Americans finished third, and his Olympic debut didn’t come until 2008.
Hurlbert, meanwhile, took solace at the time from residents in his district.
“People were pretty proud of what we were doing,” he said. “It was less about the mentality of having Kobe in the case and more a reaction toward the media.”
Mackey didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment. The alleged victim's attorney, L. Lin Wood, didn’t respond to a message for comment; co-counsel John Clune declined to comment.
Mahoney reported from New York. Associated Press writer Colleen Slevin also contributed to this report.