Kobe Bryant judge is soft-spoken but stern

Colleagues say Terry Ruckriegle won't let a media frenzy get in the way of a basketball star's trial.

He's said to dote on his teenage daughters. But in his courtroom, the judge presiding over People v. Kobe Bryant maintains strict decorum and exacting standards.

And so, as the media frenzy descends upon Colorado - as the rape case of basketball star Kobe Bryant unfolds - State District Judge Terry Ruckriegle is expected to keep the circus outside the court's doors.

With wire-rim glasses and a red-tinged moustache, Judge Ruckriegle is faced with balancing a defendant's right to a fair trial with an accuser's rights under Colorado's rape-shield law, in one of the highest-profile criminal prosecutions of the year.

But lawyers who've appeared before the judge say he won't leave any room for nonsense.

"Judge Ruckriegle is a very cautious, careful, and deliberate judge," says Denver defense attorney Scott Robinson. "He's very demanding of counsel. Lawyers have to come to court prepared. They need legal justification for any position they take - or they can expect to pay the consequences."

Mr. Bryant, a guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, is charged with sexually assaulting a female employee at a Colorado mountain resort last June. He insists the two had consensual sexual relations. He faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, if convicted.

On Friday, Bryant appeared before Ruckriegle in a pretrial hearing in Eagle, a small town 100 miles west of Denver. The hearing covered several defense and prosecution motions, including whether the alleged victim's medical history would be admitted at trial.

Like most states, Colorado has a rape-shield law that generally protects victims from disclosures about their sexual conduct or reputation before or after an alleged assault. But the Colorado law includes two exceptions: evidence about prior sexual conduct with the defendant and evidence that might show the acts charged were not committed by the defendant.

During Friday's hearing, which related directly to the defendant's medical records, the judge said he'd like more time to reflect on the issue. The Lakers' guard was at the courthouse Friday but returned to California for a home game Friday night. The next hearing is scheduled for Jan. 23.

A history of fairness

Described as demanding and competent, observers say Ruckriegle will set an appropriate tone and ensure integrity of the legal process. "This won't be a circus," says Mike Goodbee, Colorado's deputy attorney general for criminal justice.

Ruckriegle, who appointed himself to preside over Bryant's trial, has served as a judge in Colorado's Fifth Judicial District since 1984. He's been the district's chief jurist for the past decade. Prior to his bench appointment, Ruckriegle served for nine years as a district attorney in the Fifth District - which covers a four-county area in central Colorado.

The Kokomo, Ind., native holds a business degree from Indiana University, and is a 1973 graduate of Indiana University's law school. Married to Deb, a schoolteacher, he enjoys skiing and annual elk-hunting trips.

While his strict style in court doesn't often make him a favorite with lawyers, it does win their respect, says former longtime Denver District Attorney Craig Silverman, now a trial lawyer in Denver. "I think he's really tough in court. But sometimes lawyers like that."

Mr. Goodbee, a former district attorney, agrees. "I think a lot of lawyers respect him," he says. "In cases I've tried in front of him, win or lose, I always felt I got a fair shake from the bench."

Mr. Robinson, who has argued numerous cases before Ruckriegle for more than 20 years, says Bryant will be assured a fair trial. "This judge will not favor the prosecution, or the defense," he says. "He definitely knows the rules of law and evidence, and applies them fairly."

Away from the courtroom, the soft-spoken jurist remains formal and reserved - at least around lawyers. "He doesn't seem to take the judicial robes off, even when he's not on the bench," says Robinson.

A quiet ambition

Indeed, Ruckriegle is said to often return to work after dinner with his family. He serves on several committees dedicated to improvement of the legal profession, and was one of three finalists for a seat on the Colorado Supreme Court in 2000. "I know he was deeply honored to have been a finalist," says Goodbee.

But the judge is known to loosen up at times and possess a keen sense of humor. He has even officiated at a mass wedding ceremony held annually on Valentine's Day at Loveland ski area.

Some have been critical of Ruckriegle's decision to appoint himself to the Bryant case, rather than follow the usual system of rotation, which would have put another judge in line for it. Yet Silverman believes the judge's move, while unusual, bodes well for the case. "He's obviously enthusiastic about presiding over this trial. I think that's a good thing."

Moreover, the judge has been responsive to public interest in the case, and displays a desire to accommodate the media, Silverman says. "I think the public will get more access to pretrial information than would be typical."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.