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The Thong Show

On a recent episode of HBO's Real Time, comic Bill Maher suggested that the young woman who accuses basketballer Kobe Bryant of raping her last year is named "Looney McSlut." Amid audience laughter, he added, "I think it is, actually. They weren't supposed to release it, but..."

Thanks to Maher and his fellow yuksters, Eagle County District Court, the original legal home of the Bryant matter, became a national laughingstock for accidentally discharging confidential information on multiple occasions. But these screw-ups proved handy for the woman's lawyers, who've lately been lusting after a civil suit. During an August 4 appearance on Good Morning America, attorneys L. Lin Wood and John Clune said their client might be forced to make just such a move because of the court's gaffes. Six days later, on August 10, they pulled the trigger, filing suit against Bryant in U.S. District Court in Denver.

Wood, of course, provides a telling link between Colorado's latest tabloid sensation and the mother of them all; he represented John and Patsy Ramsey following the murder of their daughter, JonBenét. As such, he's grown adept at reading the writing on the wall, not to mention the testimony from a pre-trial hearing on June 21 and 22. The general public got a chance to peruse much of this material as well, thanks to more court bungling and the willingness of several media organizations, including the Denver Post, to challenge an attempt to close the barn door after the horse was loose.

The star of the show on the days in question was Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, a defense expert who discussed semen from two men that was found in a purple thong worn by the woman on the night she says the rape occurred. Johnson noted that one sample could be traced to Bryant, while the other came from an unknown individual she identified by the comic-book-like handle Mr. X. Since none of Mr. X's DNA was found on Bryant, Johnson surmised that the woman had intercourse with this third party mere hours after her encounter with the Los Angeles Lakers star.

Suggestions that Bryant's legal team, headed by attorneys Hal Haddon and Pamela Mackey, planned to level such charges are nothing new. Cynthia Stone, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault (CCASA), believes that Haddon and Mackey have been trying to "taint the jury pool and discredit this young woman in the public's mind" by putting incendiary and inappropriate material into pre-trial motions, which are public in Colorado. This "loophole," as Stone calls it, was recently closed in California, and Russ Bogh, the assemblyman who introduced the bill that plugged the gap there, told the Los Angeles-based Daily Bulletin in June that the excesses of Bryant's lawyers helped motivate him to act.

Attempts to pass similar legislation in Colorado have gone nowhere. Nevertheless, Mr. X might have remained a mystery until trial was under way if, on June 24, court reporter Michelle Goodbee hadn't accidentally e-mailed a mammoth 206 pages worth of transcripts concerning him to seven news organizations: the Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS, ESPN, Fox News, the Associated Press and the offices of TV's Celebrity Justice. This blunder led to a series of legal maneuvers that didn't end until August 2, when Eagle County Judge Terry Ruckriegle reluctantly issued a slightly sanitized version of the disputed documents.

Previously, Ruckriegle demanded that media outlets obliterate the misdirected e-mails. Post editor Greg Moore construed this order to be prior restraint -- the censoring of material before it's disseminated, in possible violation of the First Amendment. "The principle here is whether a judge could dictate to the press whether the press could or couldn't print something," he says. "We believe there's a good, solid body of law that says you can't do that."

Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court's 1971 decision in favor of the New York Times, which obtained a damning government study dubbed the Pentagon Papers at the height of the Vietnam War, set the prior-restraint bar awfully high. Even so, CCASA's Stone regards any attempt to equate the Pentagon Papers with the Bryant transcripts to be patently absurd. "There's quite a difference between going after corrupt government officials and going after the sex life of a nineteen-year-old," she says. "Will this really further an intelligent discourse on either the issue of sexual assault or this case in general? No, it won't."

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Arlington, Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), which supported the Post's position, counters that such distinctions are secondary to the legal standards at stake. "The only times prior restraint has been upheld have been in cases where there was a competing constitutional interest," she maintains. "And a statute in Colorado that protects a victim's identity doesn't rise to the level of the First Amendment." In her view, Ruckriegle's order was "like trying to unring the bell."

At first glance, it appears that the Post could have avoided a six-week slog through the judicial system had it been quicker on the draw. According to a June 25 article by the paper's Steve Lipsher, who's done a fine job on this story, court reporter Goodbee e-mailed the forbidden file at 1:19 p.m. on the 24th -- and her follow-up message, which read, in part, "The transcripts sent earlier today are SEALED and should be deleted," didn't arrive for another four hours. A subsequent command from Ruckriegle to "delete and destroy any copies and not reveal any contents" of the e-mail or risk a contempt-of-court citation was tardier still, rolling in at 6:41 p.m.

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