Lakers' Bryant is charged

EAGLE, Colo. -- The Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, one of the most talented and dynamic basketball players of his generation, was charged yesterday with the felony sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel worker who came to his room at an exclusive resort and later accused him of forcing her to have sex.

In a nationally televised news conference, Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, announced the charges, saying Bryant had "caused sexual penetration or intrusion and caused submission of the victim through actual physical force."

Later, in an emotional appearance before reporters at Staples Center in Los Angeles, where he helped lead the Lakers to three consecutive NBA championships, a tearful Bryant, 24, said he had made "a mistake of adultery," but insisted the sex was consensual.

Sitting next to his wife of two years, Vanessa, he shook his head, shifted uncomfortably in his seat and pursed his lips as he said: "I sit here before you guys embarrassed and ashamed for committing adultery. You know, you go through the feeling of, `If I could just turn back the hands of time.' But I'm innocent. And together, my wife and I and our family are going to fight these false accusations.

"I didn't force her to do anything against her will. I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery. I love my wife with all my heart. She's my backbone."

It was the first time Bryant had publicly admitted having sex with the woman.

If convicted of the felony charge of sexual assault, he could face a prison sentence of four years to life, although probation also would be an option. The crime also carries a potential fine of up to $750,000.

Bryant's first court date will be Aug. 6, Hurlbert said, when he will be arraigned and bail will be set. The prosecutor would not speculate about when a trial might take place.

Bryant's attorney, Pamela Mackey, a prominent Denver criminal lawyer, said the player would plead not guilty, and predicted he would be acquitted. She said the physical evidence in the case "totally supports his belief" that the sex was consensual. However, she declined to discuss the evidence, saying she did not want to try the case in the media.

Hurlbert similarly declined to describe the evidence against Bryant, except to say that it included witness testimony and physical evidence. He did not say if there were witnesses besides Bryant and the alleged victim. He said he was confident he could prove Bryant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Hurlbert said he came to his decision to charge Bryant "only after reviewing all of the evidence - testimonial evidence and physical evidence; after reviewing the relevant statutes, after reviewing the relevant case law and after conferring with prosecutors from around the state. Then and only then did I make my decision."

Acknowledging that he had agonized over the decision, which came two weeks after Bryant's arrest, Hurlbert insisted he could prove his case and said that Bryant would not get special treatment, despite his celebrity status.

"We're trying this case like any other case," Hurlbert said. Then, bowing to the disconnection of the moment, he added: "I understand [that] I'm saying that as I'm looking at about 20 cameras here."

The assault allegedly took place the night of June 30 at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, a $300-a-night hotel in Edwards, a small town midway between Eagle and Vail. Bryant was there to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee at a clinic in Vail.

The young woman who is accusing him works at the hotel as a receptionist and concierge, and had gone to Bryant's room sometime that night. The next morning, he underwent the surgery as scheduled and the woman went with her parents to the Eagle County Sheriff's Department to lodge a complaint against him.

Bryant was interviewed by investigators that night and voluntarily provided DNA samples at a hospital the next morning. He was arrested July 4.

In a statement issued through his attorneys, Bryant said: "I did not assault the woman who is accusing me. I have to answer to my wife and my God for my actions that night, and I pray that both will forgive me."

Turning to his wife, he continued: "You're a blessing. You're the beats of my heart, you're the air I breathe. You're the strongest person I know, and I'm so sorry for having to put you through this and having to put our family through this."

Vanessa Bryant stared straight ahead and caressed her husband's hand during much of the news conference, and left without speaking. However, she issued a statement through her attorneys saying her husband had committed a mistake but not a crime.

"I will give him all the strength and support he needs to face these false accusations," she said. "I will not let him face these accusations alone."

Her father, Bob Laine, also expressed qualified support for Bryant.

"He's showing a weakness that none of us knew about," Laine said in an interview at his home in Huntington Beach, Calif. "But that doesn't mean he's some sort of rapist or monster. I'm not thrilled it was adultery, but it sure beats the alternative."

In Colorado, Nicole McDonough, a close friend of the woman accusing Bryant, said she spoke to her after Hurlbert's announcement.

"She's good, she's happy," McDonough said. "She was pretty confident all along that [Hurlbert] would do what he'd do."

The accuser, who is not being identified because of the nature of the charges, is a former high school cheerleader and choir member who has many supporters in the small community.

Paul Pastoor, general manager of the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, said the woman had been put on administrative leave from her job.

Assuming the case goes to trial, Bryant's attorneys will have an incentive to make sure it takes place outside basketball season, which runs from October until May - plus a six-week-long postseason in which the Lakers hope to participate.

Brian McIntyre, the NBA's senior vice president for basketball communications, said Bryant would be allowed to play while the case was pending.

Eagle County Sheriff Joseph Hoy, who conducted the initial investigation and caused a stir when he got his warrant from a county judge rather than the district attorney, appeared buoyant after Hurlbert's announcement.

As he marched back to his office, Hoy was asked if he felt vindicated by Hurlbert's decision.

"Vindicated? I didn't feel a need for vindication," he said. "I think we did a good job from the beginning."

However, Hoy came under attack later from Mackey, Bryant's attorney, who accused him and his deputies of making "inappropriate statements" about the case to the media.

Bryant's defense team also said it would be looking into reports that Hoy was the teacher in a drug awareness class that Bryant's accuser took when she was in seventh grade. Eagle County government officials have confirmed that Hoy taught the DARE class at Eagle Valley Middle School. Hoy said he might have taught the girl but didn't remember her.

"It's a non-issue," he said. "They're trying to make a connection where there's not one."

Regardless of the outcome, the charge undoubtedly will tarnish Bryant's reputation. A player of enormous athletic skills, which have earned him comparisons to Michael Jordan, he also is known for being one of the NBA's good guys, unusually polite and well-spoken, with a reputation as a devoted family man. He and his wife had their first child, Natalia, in January.

Bryant's reputation also will be deployed in his defense, legal experts said.

One leading criminal defense lawyer, Laurie Levenson of Los Angeles, suggested that Hurlbert is mistaken if he thinks the case can be tried like any other. "Anytime the jury knows the defendant by [his] first name, it's a different kind of case," she said.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.