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Ducking the Issue

Photo by Alex Markels

Two years ago, while I was reporting a story about the latest sports-arena merchandise giveaways, a huckster sent me a wacky, or should I say “quacky,” figurine that seemed to embody everything that made Kobe Bryant basketball’s ascendant poster boy. Buff but harmless, kissable but squeaky clean, the Kobe Bryant “Celebriduck” was a novelty that would surely increase in value as the soft-spoken Bryant became the heir apparent to Michael Jordan’s half-billion-dollar endorsement throne.

So ridiculous it was amusing, Bryant’s mustachioed beak remained perched on my desk last summer when the phone suddenly began ringing in a way only a workaday freelance writer like myself could appreciate. “The sports desk is just salivating, and I fear they have many days in mind for this,” a Denver-based New York Times reporter told me. “I’m swamped. Will you do it?”

“Sure,” I said without hesitation.

After all, the biggest story of the summer was unfolding right in my back yard. I lived just a few miles from the hotel where Bryant had allegedly raped a 19-year-old girl in his room. Even better, I knew people who worked at the hotel and others who knew the accuser and her family. I was also plugged into the local legal community. Mark Hurlbert, the district attorney in charge of the case, lived right down the street from me. I would own this story, I figured. Maybe I’d even get on Page One.

I soon got exactly that — and so much more — as I rushed headlong into a ravenous media feeding frenzy that would eventually shake my faith in my profession, as well as in myself. In the coming months, my and my colleagues’ collective blood lust for uncovering the “facts” of the case would help expose Bryant’s accuser to hundreds of death threats and heaps of public scorn, while also robbing Bryant of any chance of ever becoming the next Michael Jordan. In the end, our glaring search for the truth yielded exactly the opposite: a mishmash of leaks and hearsay that helped ensure key testimony like Bryant’s interview with detectives and the findings of DNA experts would never be aired in court.

It all began with that very first assignment.

“Let’s get her side of the story,” my editor encouraged me. “Go find her and see if she’ll talk.”

It took me all of 10 minutes to track down the accuser’s name and address. But as I pulled into the bucolic cul-de-sac where she lived with her parents, I began to feel as ridiculous as that figurine sitting on my desk. Charges hadn’t even been filed, yet there I was stalking her street, putting on a concerned, serious face as I pumped her neighbors for tips.

My local sources had already told me plenty: how her mom, a former librarian at a local elementary school, and her retiree dad were “wonderful, loving parents,” but didn’t know much of anything about their daughter’s reputation for promiscuity. They’d seen her through tough times recently, after her best friend was killed in an auto accident the preceding spring and her boyfriend had subsequently broken off their relationship. When she emerged from her room in tears on the morning after her encounter with Bryant, her mother stood up for her again. Shocked by what she’d heard, her mother then called the local rape-crisis center. And although no one knew exactly what was discussed in the coming hours, her dad’s call to the local Sheriff’s Office made clear that someone in the house suspected foul play.

Three months later, when Detective Doug Winters took the stand at a preliminary hearing and offered the first official details of what happened following that call, Winters explained that the accuser’s father had insisted that detectives come to interview his daughter at the family’s home. That was against police protocol; statements are typically videotaped in a Sheriff’s Office interview room with only the witness and detectives present. But Winters agreed to go to the family’s home anyway, figuring he could persuade the accuser to come down to the station house later.

Sitting in her living room with her parents on either side, she told the detective that she’d been raped. Winters then convinced her to make a videotaped statement at his office.

Yet to this day, something about the circumstances surrounding the woman’s statement rubbed me the wrong way. By the time she arrived there, she had another person standing up for her: a victim advocate from the local rape-crisis center. Her parents then requested that the advocate be allowed to sit in on the interview. Wasn’t that against protocol, too? “I’ve never had it happen,” Winters told the prosecutor at the hearing.

The next day’s news stories, including the one I wrote for The New York Times, never mentioned those facts, opting instead to focus on the far more juicy details of the woman’s statement: that after she went to his room, lifted up her dress to show him a tattoo on her back and willingly made out with him, Bryant had become more and more aggressive, ultimately forcing her to have sex even after she’d said “no.”

Though we’ll never really know what happened in Bryant’s room that night, throughout my reporting, sexual-assault experts had told me that in the hours after a date rape, many victims feel so much confusion and shame over what happened that they often need to be told by a third party that they were, in fact, assaulted. “Women call all the time with stories about how they agreed to certain sexual acts but didn’t want to do others,” said Patricia Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assault Against Women. “They consented to oral sex but not to intercourse. Or they said ‘yes’ to sex but not to anal sex. But they still feel guilty and blame themselves for leading the other person on. So we have to remind them that if it was done against their will, it’s sexual assault.”

With coaching like that, it’s not hard to imagine how Bryant’s accuser could have turned what was at the very least an awkward sexual encounter into something far more serious. Nor is it hard to see how parents largely clueless about their daughter’s sexual proclivities could hear her tale and immediately conclude the same. Combine that with a bevy of physical evidence linking Bryant to the woman and a videotaped interview in which he at first denies even having sex with her, and it’s also not hard to see why the district attorney felt that, well, if he quacks like a duck . . .

Meanwhile, with the help of Bryant’s $12 million, 65-person legal-defense team, his attorneys played the same ducky deduction game on the accuser. She had mental problems? Had sex with three other guys just before she met Bryant? As far as they were concerned, she certainly walked like a duck!

In the end, however, it was us in the media who quacked the loudest, overwhelming a small-town judicial system the entire annual prosecutorial budget of which amounts to a mere fraction of the multiple millions that everyone from The New York Times to Celebrity Justice devoted to covering the case. And while court administrators were clearly to blame for repeated mistakes that thrice revealed the accuser’s name and e-mailed damning transcripts from closed hearings, it’s clear enough that we had a big role in forcing such errors.

Indeed, some believe the accuser finally pulled the plug only after a Denver TV station reported that it had received a copy of the entire witness list, including her name, just days before the trial was to start. If that’s true, then we only have ourselves to blame for the Bryant trial’s lame-duck ending: a woman tarred and feathered, a superstar plucked of his plumage and a Kobe Bryant Celebriduck that — like Kobe’s dwindling endorsements — now sells for $3.97 (a third its original price) on Amazon.com.