EAGLE, Colo. – Los Angeles Lakers basketball guard Kobe Bryant will be tried on charges of raping a 19-year-old Colorado resort employee but the judge presiding over the case criticized prosecutors for presenting only "a minimal amount of evidence."
In a nine-page ruling Monday, Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett (search) said that while there was just enough evidence to allow the trial to be held, the evidence prosecutors did show suggested "submission and force." The evidence included photographs of the woman's injuries, as well as blood on her underwear and on Bryant's T-shirt.
• Raw Data: Probable Cause Order (pdf)
He also said a statement from the woman that she was raped, which has not been introduced in open court, couldn't be ignored.
"The court finds that the evidence, taken in a light most favorable to the prosecution, is sufficient to 'induce a reasonable belief' that defendant committed sexual assault as charged," Gannett said.
Bryant, 25, could face a life sentence if convicted. His next appearance, in district court, is set for Nov. 10.
Gannett's comments on the evidence indicate he had questions about the prosecution's case, legal analysts said.
"Judge Gannett is holding his nose while he passes this case to the next level," said Craig Silverman, a Denver defense attorney and former prosecutor.
Judges normally don't issue written rulings after preliminary hearings, and the fact that Gannett wrote his suggests the case is fraught with difficulties, said Scott Robinson, a Denver attorney.
"It is probably gratifying to the defense that the judge has gently taken the prosecution to task for the limited amount of evidence presented, but that is probably of little solace," he said.
"The reality is that unless there is significantly more substantial evidence available at trial, and a suitable explanation for some of the puzzling physical evidence which surfaced last week, a conviction looks like a completely unlikely scenario," he said.
Bryant has said the sex was consensual. His attorneys suggested the woman's injuries came during sex with other men in the days before her June 30 encounter with Bryant at a posh resort in nearby Edwards.
The defense can appeal Gannett's ruling, but such appeals are rare, legal experts said.
At Bryant's first appearance in state district court on Nov. 10, he will be advised of his rights, of the charge and of the possible penalties. He could enter a plea during that hearing.
Unless Bryant waives his right to a speedy trial, the trial would be scheduled within six months of his plea.
A trial could attract the kind of attention that surrounded O.J. Simpson (search)'s 1995 case, when he was acquitted of killing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman after a nationally televised trial.
Colorado law sets a relatively low standard of proof for ordering a case to trial and requires the judge to interpret evidence in a way that favors toward the prosecution.
District Attorney Mark Hurlbert has said he held back some evidence, knowing a preliminary hearing requires a judge to look at the evidence in a way that is most favorable to prosecutors.
Hurlbert said Monday he was "pleased" by the decision, "although we had confidence all along in the case."
Despite the judge's ruling, the case against Bryant is weak and shouldn't have been filed, defense attorney Pamela Mackey said.
"The standard at trial is a far higher burden: proof beyond a reasonable doubt. When this case is tested by that standard, Kobe Bryant will be found innocent," Mackey and co-counsel Hal Haddon said in a written statement.
The chances of persuading Gannett to dismiss the case were slim but "the prosecution's case simply had to be tested," they said.
At the Lakers' El Segundo, Calif., practice facility, Bryant was asked before the ruling how much anxiety he was feeling. "Basketball, zero anxiety. Other stuff, a little anxiety," he said.
"But now I just pretty much, you know, give it up. I've pretty much I done all I can. Now I'll let God carry me the rest of the way. I feel comfortable with that," he said.
John Clune, the lawyer representing the woman, declined comment.
Bryant's preliminary hearing lasted for nearly two days and included graphic testimony about an encounter prosecutors say turned violent after flirting by both Bryant and his accuser.
Sheriff's Detective Doug Winters testified the woman went to Bryant's room at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera shortly after checking him and his two bodyguards in to the resort.
The two chatted and began kissing. But a few minutes later, Bryant grabbed the woman by the throat, bent her over a chair and raped her, asking her several times not to tell anybody, Winters testified.
She told Bryant "no" at least twice, and he stopped only after she pulled his hand off her neck, Winters said.
The woman was left with vaginal tears consistent with assault and her blood was found on Bryant's shirt, Winters said.
But he acknowledged under cross-examination by Mackey that the woman had sex with another man shortly before her encounter with Bryant. She also didn't tell Winters initially that she had said "no."
The defense argued that the semen and pubic hair found in the woman's underwear that wasn't from Bryant proves he is innocent of rape -- an argument ridiculed by prosecutor Greg Crittenden. He said the evidence of rape was "uncontradicted."
At trial, any discussion of the woman's sexual history could be limited by Colorado's rape shield law, unless Bryant's attorneys successfully argue the evidence fits into one of the few exceptions.
Prosecutors, however, must convince a jury that a woman flattered by Bryant's attention had no intention of having sex with him as they kissed. Winters acknowledged she told him she expected Bryant to "put a move" on her when she accepted the invitation to his room.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.