Hall of blame.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 2 2004 5:20 PM

Hall of Blame

Who's to blame for the wreckage of the Kobe Bryant case?

Bryant's apology says he's sorry but not to blame
Bryant's apology says he's sorry but not to blame

Snatching humiliation from the jaws of defeat yesterday, Eagle County, Colo., prosecutors dropped all charges against Kobe Bryant. Everyone agrees the whole legal proceeding was an epic debacle, and in the coming days we will hear blame laid everywhere. But where the legal system was once concerned with assigning blame and responsibility, the lasting legacy of this case will be that nobody did anything, and no one is to blame, save perhaps Bryant's accuser, who was never even a party to this case.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

Were the problems with this case the fault of an overeager prosecution team, for instance, that raced to nail a big-name celebrity defendant before properly evaluating the merits of their case? Or were they outspent and overpowered by an unprincipled, high-priced defense team—whose strategy from the get-go was to tar the accuser as a whore? Neither, really. Each side was simply doing its job in an adversarial system that rewards hardball and sees no shades of gray. Each side deployed every weapon available in a battle they both viewed as skewed against their team.

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In his prepared statement last night, District Attorney Mark Hurlbert was insistent that the fault was not with his case, or the accuser. He apologized instead for the misdeeds of others: for the court, and the defense team—whose conduct had given the victim "misgivings about her rights being respected in this process." Nothing, in short, about this taxpayer-funded kabuki was his fault.

Was it all District Judge Terry Ruckriegle's fault, then, for allowing his staff to leak—on four separate occasions—humiliating details as well as the name of an accuser who had already endured a year of abuse and death threats? No. His was a tiny little courthouse, staffed by honest guppies and bunnies, overmatched by the wolves of cable television.

Ruckriegle's formal apology to the victim and her family for the leaks in July was a tour de force, really: "When children and people make mistakes, they should not be castigated and ridiculed," he said. Instead these mistakes are merely "SLOs—significant learning opportunities, where the people making the mistakes and those around them learned lessons in life and grew from them as part of their development." (That was an apology, in case you missed it.) Instead of acknowledging that his court had more or less ruined a young woman's life and possibly the state's case, the judge reassured her that he'd learned a valuable life lesson. Well, whew.

Nor can Ruckriegle be faulted for permitting the defense to bring in evidence of the accuser's other sexual encounters in the three days surrounding the alleged assault. Sure, in doing so, he shattered the presumption underlying Colorado's rape shield law, a law forbidding disclosure of a victim's sexual history unless for very specific reasons. The purpose of these laws was to ensure that rape trials are no longer a referendum on the victim's chastity. But under these facts, Ruckriegle had no real choice. This evidence was clearly relevant to the question of the victim's injuries, and keeping it out would have been unfair to Bryant. The judge made the correct legal call that had the practical effect of ending the trial. No reason to apologize there.

So perhaps we can blame rape shield laws, then—or the criminal justice system as a whole—for well-intentioned reforms that ultimately made everything about this case worse for everyone. Reformers say no. They say the laws worked just fine: We only introduce evidence of the victim's appalling sluttishness for limited evidentiary purposes. No reason to believe jurors would be prejudiced by that. Whew again, then.

Is it the fault of the American public, then, who can't sleep at night without tuning in to the Bryant/Peterson/Jackson show? Were we not such ravenous consumers of these high-carb legal psychodramas, might this trial have unfolded in a deliberate, decorous fashion? No. It's not really the fault of the media, or the public. We are merely exerting our constitutional right to ensure that trials are fair and open. We have no reason to apologize. We should be thanked.

Is it the fault of the great unchlorinated jury pool of America, then, the millions of us who knew—before seeing a single piece of evidence—exactly what happened in Bryant's fancy hotel room? Is blame to be laid at the feet of all the letter-writers, Web site-posters, threat-makers and callers-to-radio-shows, who insist, unequivocally, that any woman who enters a man's hotel room—for any reason except to clean it—is asking to be raped? Or is the blame to be shared between them and the absolutist feminists who keep insisting that one woman in four is sexually assaulted in her lifetime and that women never lie about rape?

Rumor has it that Bryant apologized yesterday. But his prepared statement makes it clear that Bryant doesn't accept any blame either. He offers instead, the same "apology" Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered the women he once groped: A variant on, "I'm sorry you were offended by my benign actions." It's an amazing trick, the new-age fake apology, suggesting that the fault doesn't lie in the conduct, but with eggshell victims who take everything too seriously.

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