News & Politics

Bryant's Deep Pockets Needed to Buy Justice

Despite Kobe Bryant's superstar status, race often lurks just beneath the surface of his case and in other criminal cases involving black defendants and white victims.
Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert called the nearly three hundred thousand dollars he requested to prosecute superstar athlete Kobe Bryant on rape charges, "bargain basement." But the money that Bryant must shell out to beat the charges against him is anything but bargain basement.

There are two reasons why. Despite his superstar status, race often lurks just beneath the surface in criminal cases involving black defendants and white victims. In times past, a rape case against an African-American has been loaded with the racial and sexual stereotype of black men as inherently criminal and sexually menacing. In two USA Today/Gallup polls in August and July, far more blacks than whites said they were sympathetic to Bryant, and believed the charges against him were false. The same gaping black-white divide in race and gender tinged criminal cases was glaringly evident in the Mike Tyson and O.J. Simpson trials.

This volatile mix of race and class is the second reason Bryant's deep pockets are crucial in determining his legal fate. While his wealth and sports fame can't entirely cancel out the highly charged racial and sexual issues in the case, he can buy a measure of justice that most defendants facing similar charges can never dream of.

In major felony cases, the defendant generally will face the best prosecutors in the District Attorney's office who have many years experience in trying criminal cases. In Bryant's case the DA, and an assistant DA expert in sexual assault cases were prepared to handle the prosecution. Most prosecutors stay current on legal changes, precedents, decisions, techniques, and courtroom strategy. They have unlimited resources, teams of investigators, clerical, and technical staff. They depend on skilled medical, forensic, and mental health experts to present and interpret facts and evidence. They have local police and FBI crime labs with state of the art technology to uncover and analyze the evidence they present.

More important, prosecutors have public consensus about crime on their side. Much of the public equates an individual's arrest with guilt. When a defendant is released because of police error, insufficient evidence, constitutional or procedural violations, many politicians and much of the public howl that weak laws and bleeding-heart judges permit criminals to escape justice. Some state and local court judges who have tried to uphold the law fairly and impartially have been defeated at the polls or have been the targets of successful recall campaigns.

Prosecutors also have the jury system. The mostly middle-class white men and women who make up most juries often reflect middle-class attitudes, and biases, and that can include hidden racial bias.

To have a fighting chance against the Eagle County DA's powerful legal arsenal, Bryant had to pay top dollar for a top-flight defense team capable of demolishing the prosecution's evidence and preventing the case from going to trial.

If it went to trial, he would have to shell out a kings ransom to match the DA's army of experts with his own, and to hire jury consultants to try and figure how to weed out potential jurors who might be biased against him, and hope the expense was enough to create "reasonable doubt" in the minds of jurors to win acquittal.

This type of defense is far outside the reach of poor defendants. A large percentage of felony defendants are represented by grossly over worked, underpaid public defenders or court appointed attorneys. In a study examining the quality of legal representation in capital and major felony cases, the National Law Journal found that some states do not even maintain public defender offices, let alone allocate the funds to hire investigators, clerks or secretaries for poor defendants. Only a tiny percent of indigent defendants see an attorney before their first court appearance.

The shoddy, or non-existent, legal representation for many poor defendants has resulted in shocking and embarrassing legal foul-ups. According to the Innocence Project, more than 150 defendants, mostly black or Latino men, have been wrongly convicted of murder or rape, and freed. The men spent years behind bars. A notorious example was the four young black and Latino men convicted in the famed New York Central Park Jogger case in 1989. They languished in prison for more than a decade before being exonerated.

The Supreme Court has done little to insure that poor blacks or Latinos get the kind of quality defense that Bryant can buy. It has refused to require states to spend money to provide competent, trained counsel and staff for poor defendants. In some states paralegals and law clerks that work on civil rights and civil litigation cases are paid more than attorneys who represent indigents in capital cases.

Bryant, however, won't have to worry about any of this. If tried and convicted, he would appeal. It would cost plenty. But his deep pockets would give him another chance to buy justice -- a chance most poor defendants don't have.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.
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