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.

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. "You could weaken your civil case," says DeMarco.

Debate over shield laws

Some advocates say that this case points to needed revision in state rape shield laws. In this case, the District Judge Terry Ruckriegle ruled that the woman's sex life during the three days surrounding her encounter with Bryant was admissible as evidence. That may have helped the defense's case that she slept with another man after Bryant left, and before going to the hospital for an exam. The woman's lawyers have denied that accusation.

Shield laws could be strengthened, Professor Anderson says, by decreasing the number of exceptions and barring some evidence entirely.

Not everyone believes the case was damaged by weaknesses in the rape shield law, however. "You can't solve [the problem] by mending a statute," says Christopher Mueller, a professor of law at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

He says the challenges of this case were inevitable, and that charges of date rape will always prompt the defense to include evidence of other sexual activity. "There will always be arguments in these settings about the relevance of other sexual activities and whether physical symptoms were caused by other activities other than the alleged crime," he says. "The only thing unusual about this case is that it's a huge star who is the defendant and it only makes visible what courts go through every day, in every jurisdiction, in trying to apply this [rape-shield] statute."

Gender's legal import

But the case does point to larger issues about women's sexuality. Anderson says that from the beginning, defense attorneys in pretrial motions were attacking the accuser's alleged sexual history, saying it was essential that jurors know she was promiscuous. "[We need] to acknowledge that as a society we have yet to overcome deep sexism about women who are sexually active outside of marriage," says Andersen.

That sort of scrutiny can prevent rape victims from coming forward. And some worry that the high-profile nature of this trial could have a negative impact on other victims' willingness to testify.

The Lakers guard issued a written apology that stopped short of taking responsibility for his actions. "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did," he said in a statement read in court by his lawyer.

Experts say the statement could ultimately help him in his civil trial. "[He decided to] take the high road, and say, we are really sorry," says DeMarco. "It shows he's being honest, and honesty is the corollary to credibility."

Kendra Nordin contributed to this article, and wire reports were used.

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