News & Politics

A Kobe Legal Slam Dunk

Money and superstar allure, not race, are the key factors in the Kobe Bryant rape trial.
The instant Laker superstar Kobe Bryant was charged with rape, the debate raged whether he could get a fair trial in Eagle County, Colorado. Blacks make up less than one percent of the population there, and in 1996 a federal judge ordered the county sheriff's department to stop racially profiling black motorists. Bryant's attorneys forcefully rammed race into the case when they demanded that prospective jurors be probed about their attitudes toward interracial dating.

But the outcome of the trial that will probably take place in the fall won't hinge on racial bias, law enforcement attitudes, or vindictive prosecutors. It will hinge on his money and superstar allure. These are the aces that well-heeled, high profile defendants such as Bryant who wind up on the legal hot seat play to buy, finagle, and massage the criminal justice system.

With a rape charge hanging over his head, Bryant would have little chance without those aces. Rape, murder and child molestation are the charges that fuel the greatest public fury, and passion. District attorneys know these cases are politically and emotionally volatile. Their best and most experienced prosecutors pull out all stops to win convictions. Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert quickly grabbed a top team of prosecutors, forensic and sexual assault experts to advise him on precedents, decisions, techniques, and courtroom strategy, and to present and interpret facts, assess evidence, and test juror attitudes in the case.

DA's also have juror bias on their side. Much of the public equates an individual's arrest with guilt, and even when race is not an issue in a criminal case, the majority of those who serve on juries, mostly middle-class whites, trust in the fairness of the criminal justice system. But even when race is an issue and the defendant is black and the alleged victim is white, as in Bryant's case, a large number of black and non-white jurors often harbor the same biases, prejudices, and negative preconceptions about defendants, while placing great stock in police testimony and the prosecution's evidence. The myth that black defendants routinely waltz out of court when blacks make up the majority of a jury was blown wildly out of proportion in the aftermath of the O.J. Simpson acquittal. Legions of black defendants are tried and convicted daily in felony cases in courts throughout the nation by predominantly black juries, or juries with more than a token number of blacks.

Bryant has used his wealth to sweep, or some would say, mangle the legal minefield. His pricey, top gun attorneys have filed 46 court motions since late March alone (the prosecution filed 41). They have aggressively challenged Colorado's tough rape shield law, tarnished the alleged victim's character, assailed sheriff's officers handling of the crime scene, demanded the alleged victim's medical records, combed through every line in the jury instructions, and have bombarded the court with any and every issue, no matter how trivial, to stretch the case out through one basketball season, maybe even two. The idea is to create enough "reasonable doubt" in the minds of jurors to get Bryant off, and failing that, to get his conviction reversed on appeal. The point is also to paint Bryant as a good guy who got a bum rap.

That's where Bryant's star power allure comes in. His product endorsements evaporated faster than a Houdini disappearing act, and an occasional, crudely made sign was waved at him during a game this past season that read, "Hey Kobe: no means no." Yet, the chants of "Ko-bee! Ko-bee!" at Laker games, and indeed in other arenas. grew even louder. The sale of Bryant jerseys, sports cards, and other memorabilia soared. This is more than mindless, rote sports fan idolatry.

English philosopher-economist Thomas Carlyle believed that societies exist on hero worship. They create the all-powerful "Great Man." This Olympian-like figure profoundly impacts the public: "like lightening out of heaven, the rest of men waited for him like fuel, then they would flame." The Kobe's are Carlyle's "Great Man."

They are the instant repository of the dreams, delusions, and fantasies of a public desperately in need of vicarious escape. The sports hero seduces, strokes, and comforts the public. He is expected to operate above the fray of human problems and pain. He is expected to raise society's aspirations. Society rewards him for who he is, not what he is, or whatever misdeed he's accused of committing. Bryant understood that allure and the emotional charge that he gives a fawning public. After one stirring playoff game performance, he thanked the fans for their frenzied cheers for him.

Bryant rudely dumped the issue of rape, money and hero worship on the basketball court, in the court of public opinion, and in an Eagle County court. While his acquittal is far from a slam-dunk, his money and demi-God appeal make that possibility seem more than likely.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).
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