Sep 5, 2:51 PM EDT

Bryant Case Could Chill Rape Reports

By DENISE LAVOIE
Associated Press Writer

BOSTON (AP) -- In the 1970s, rape crisis counselors celebrated when states began to pass laws designed to stop lawyers from discrediting victims with salacious details about their sex lives.

But three decades later, after all 50 states approved such rape shield laws, the Kobe Bryant case has shown that even those protections are not enough to prevent the most intimate details of an alleged victim's life from becoming public and sometimes even fair game for prosecutors.

A series of courtroom blunders in the Bryant case led to the unintended public disclosure of the accuser's name and allegations about her sex life. Prosecutors dropped the case last week after the 20-year-old woman said she would no longer participate.

"She was dragged through the mud publicly and through the Internet, through mistaken circulation by the court of her name and one-sided narratives about her sexual history," said Michelle Anderson, a law professor at Villanova University who specializes in rape law.

"Rape victims fear that their sexual history will be put on trial, and this case, unfortunately, is not going to be encouraging," Anderson said.

The accuser said Bryant raped her after the two met during a tour of the Colorado resort where she worked and ended up kissing in his room. She said the encounter turned violent and she told Bryant "no" at least twice.

Bryant said the two had consensual sex.

Under an exception to the Colorado rape shield law, the judge ruled that the defense would be allowed to present evidence about the woman's sexual activity in the three days surrounding the encounter. Bryant's defense claimed the woman had multiple sex partners in those days and suggested her injuries could have been caused during sex with someone other than Bryant.

Details of those claims were inadvertently released to the media, making the woman's sex life a hot topic of talk radio and Web chat rooms.

That kind of mistake could stop other rape victims from coming forward, advocates said.

"The problem isn't necessarily what information is actually allowed to be brought into court - the problem is other parts of the system that potentially allow for this to get out," said Sarah Graham Miller, a spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

"In a lot of these high-profile cases, they are tried in the media and they are tried by people standing around water coolers," she said.

Some advocacy groups said the judge's ruling allowing limited information about the woman's sex life was appropriate given the circumstances. At times, presenting information about the accuser's sexual history is essential to giving defendants a fair trial, some argue.

"Everybody thinks that if you go into the sexual history of alleged victims, it is just to embarrass them, but the reason is that her state of mind is the issue in the case," said defense attorney Roy Black, who successfully defended William Kennedy-Smith against rape charges in 1991.

"You've got to show something that bears upon her state of mind on the date in question," he said. "If her sexual history has no bearing on her consent, then it should be excluded."

Susan Howley, director of public policy and victim services at the National Center for Victims of Crime, said the bigger problem evident in the Bryant case is the "continued public misunderstanding of the frequency and impact of acquaintance rape."

"There's still a public reluctance to believe that a person can be raped by someone they know or someone they're on a date with," Howley said. "A lot of people believe at worst there was a miscommunication between the two people, not that the woman was raped."

Miller, whose organization runs the national sex abuse hot line, said reporting of rape has been increasing in recent years. Currently, estimates suggest less than half, or about 40 percent of rape victims, report their attacks, but that is up from about 20 percent a decade ago, Miller said.

But she said rape counselors are concerned that the Bryant case will set back efforts to make victims feel that if they report their rapes, their attackers will be brought to justice.

"Victims have to believe the system is encouraging them to come forward, to go to the hospital and to prosecute their offenders," she said.

2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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