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SULLIED IDOL: Bryant wont have to worry about jail, but a pending civil suit could get ugly

From the beginning, Eagle County, Colo., district attorney Mark Hurlbert insisted that the sexual-assault charge he filed against Kobe Bryant had nothing to do with the celebrity of the Los Angeles Lakers' star. But from the beginning, legal experts wondered whether a Rocky Mountain lawman would have filed such a case had the defendant been anything other than Hollywood-famous.

The case collapsed last week after Bryant's accuser, the target of death threats and harassment since she was accidentally outed by the court, declined to testify against him. And in what seemed to be a programmed pas de deux toward settling the civil case she also filed against him, Bryant apologized to her, saying, "I now understand how she sincerely feels that she did not consent to this encounter."

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The initial stages of the encounter were never in dispute. Bryant, in Colorado to undergo a knee operation at a clinic in Vail, checks into the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in nearby Edwards on June 30, 2003. The front-desk clerk, a 19-year-old woman, shows him around the place and later visits him in his room, anticipating a brush with fame. They kiss by mutual agreement. Then they have sex: forced, she says; consensual, he says. He is arrested on July 4 and two weeks later charged with felony sexual assault.

Month by month, though, Hurlbert's case collected dents from a series of court foul-ups and from Bryant's big-league defense team, which seemed to overwhelm the locals. The crushing blow may have come on July 23, when Fifth Judicial District Court Judge Terry Ruckriegle ruled that Bryant's lawyers could ask the alleged victim about her sex life during a 72-hour window surrounding the incident. Getting her to admit to having had sex with another man before her encounter with Bryant would allow the defense to cast doubt on physical evidence that Bryant had forced himself on her. And getting her to admit she had sex right after the alleged rape could cast doubt on her whole story.

By then both sides knew the case was running out like a 24-sec. shot clock. The prosecution had consulted forensic expert Dr. Michael Baden several months ago about the accuser's physical examination, which showed some vaginal bruising, a possible sign of rape. But Baden said the evidence was inconclusive. "You could have these injuries in consensual sex and not have any injuries in nonconsensual sex," he told TIME. When one of Bryant's attorneys, Pamela Mackey, discovered that the prosecution had removed Baden from its witness list, she phoned him. He told her what he had told prosecutors. Mackey subsequently asked the court to dismiss the charges on the grounds that the prosecution had not shared exculpatory information, as required by law.

As jury selection began, both the accuser and the defendant were looking for an exit — she to avoid what surely would have been a grueling trial, he to avoid the risk of conviction. In midafternoon on Sept. 1, one of Bryant's local attorneys, Terrence P. O'Connor, whose office is in Edwards, visited the nearby Avon office of John Clune, who represents the accuser. It is believed that O'Connor carried a carefully crafted apology that he said Bryant would be willing to release once the charge had been dropped. The two had been discussing it for weeks, says former Eagle County prosecutor Bruce Carey, a courthouse regular. On Wednesday, he says, "they finally came to an agreement regarding the wording."

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