EAGLE, Colo. – Kobe Bryant's (search) defense team raised the issue of race in court Friday, saying black men have long been falsely accused of rape by white women.
Attorney Pamela Mackey (search), who has angered victims' advocates with her attempts to undermine the credibility of Bryant's 19-year-old accuser, raised the race issue during a hearing that will help determine whether the woman's medical history can be used against her at trial.
Even as the defense pressed for access to the woman's medical history, it also asked the judge to seal a tape of Bryant's police interrogation because the basketball star made "intensely personal" statements to detectives.
They did not detail what Bryant said, but argued that his privacy rights should be protected just as much as those of his alleged victim.
It was the third appearance before the trial judge for the Los Angeles Lakers (search) star, who faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation if convicted of felony sexual assault. Bryant, 25, has said he had consensual sex with the employee of a mountain resort last June.
The comment from Mackey came during a squabble over the notes of a rape crisis center worker who sat in on a police interview with Bryant's accuser. The defense wants access to the notes.
Inga Causey, attorney for the Resource Center of Eagle County, said releasing more details about the woman would discourage rape victims from coming forward. She said such assault reports dropped in Florida after William Kennedy Smith (search) was acquitted of sexual assault — a case in which his accuser's medical history was targeted by defense attorneys.
Mackey, however, urged the judge to focus on the Bryant case and avoid the "political agenda of the rape crisis center."
"My client stands accused of a very serious crime. There is lots of history about black men being falsely accused of this crime by white women," Mackey said as several family members of the accuser watched. She did not address the issue further.
It was the first time defense attorneys have made such a statement in open court, though they raised the idea in a court filing last week. They have also said the woman, who is white, had a "scheme" to falsely accuse Bryant in hopes of winning attention from an ex-boyfriend.
Legal experts said it was inevitable that race would become a factor in the high-profile case.
"They will give the jury a smorgasbord of reasons why the rape allegation was false," said Craig Silverman, a Denver defense attorney. "They're giving jurors a hook to hang their reasonable-doubt hat on."
Former prosecutor Norm Early called it part of a "scorched-earth policy" by the defense.
"It's incendiary and it will probably stick," added former prosecutor Wendy Murphy, a professor at the New England School of Law. "This is just the beginning, the subtle steps, of what will eventually be a very blatant race-card strategy."
The defense has made surprising comments before. Mackey repeatedly mentioned the accuser's name during one hearing and she drew gasps when she suggested the woman may have had sex with multiple partners before her encounter with Bryant.
Hoping to undermine the accuser's credibility, the defense has also said she took anti-psychotic medication and twice tried to commit suicide in the months before her encounter with Bryant.
The top issue Friday was expected to be whether the accuser surrendered her medical privacy rights by discussing her medical history with others, including her mother and police.
The arguments, however, were held behind closed doors after state District Judge Terry Ruckriegle ruled the evidence is too sensitive to allow the public to hear it.
The defense must win the fight over the privacy rights to be able to present the woman's medical history at trial. A Feb. 2-3 hearing will determine whether the details can actually be used against her.
Bryant, who has missed recent games with an injury, sat quietly throughout the hearing, whispering occasionally with his attorneys.
For the first time, Bryant entered the Eagle County courthouse through a side door. Sheriff Joseph Hoy, whose staff met recently with Bryant's bodyguards, said the change was not due to any particular threat.
The case has prompted at least two threats against Bryant's accuser.
John Roche Jr. (search), a 22-year-old former student at the University of Iowa, pleaded guilty Friday in federal court in Denver to leaving a profanity-laced death threat on the woman's answering machine last July. Roche faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for making a threatening telephone call across state lines.
In the other case, Swiss national Patrick Graber, 31, is accused of offering to kill Bryant's accuser for $3 million.