DENVER – The woman accusing Kobe Bryant (search) of rape will be forced to testify Wednesday about her sex life — a move some experts fear could discourage other women from reporting sexual assaults.
The 19-year-old woman will testify behind closed doors, but media members will be at the courthouse to report that she had to answer questions from defense attorneys about intimate details of her life.
"I'm frightened about this decision, only for the fact that families will not support victims and survivors to go report because they can now say, 'Look what happened to so-and-so,'" said Jeri Elster (search) of Los Angeles, who was raped in 1992 and has lobbied for changes in the law. "It feels like a huge setback for survivors and victims to come."
The hearing will be held to determine whether details of the woman's sex life can be introduced at Bryant's trial.
The defense says the information should be admitted because it could show that the woman's injuries were caused by another sexual partner and that she had a "scheme" to sleep with the 25-year-old Bryant, possibly to gain the attention of an ex-boyfriend.
The prosecution fought to limit defense questioning, but was rebuffed by the Colorado Supreme Court. The hearing will be the first time the woman has faced Bryant since their encounter last summer.
The Los Angeles Lakers guard has said he had consensual sex with the woman at the Vail-area resort where she worked. If convicted, he could get four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation. No trial date has been set.
Colorado's rape-shield law, like others around the country, generally bars defense attorneys from bringing up information about an alleged victim's sex life. The idea is to prevent the defense from depicting the alleged victim as a woman of loose morals.
Judges, however, can hear such testimony in private to determine whether the information is relevant and admissible as evidence.
Experts said it is not unusual in Colorado for an alleged victim to testify in such pretrial hearings. But none has attracted such widespread publicity.
The woman's name and photos of her are splashed almost weekly on the covers of supermarket tabloids and can easily be found online. Court filings are posted on the Internet.
"This is the most harmful misuse of the rape-shield law I have ever seen," Wendy Murphy, a former prosecutor who teaches at the New England School of Law, said of the Bryant case. "Without it, the defense would have nothing to point to to drag her into court."
Murphy believes many women are watching to see how Bryant's accuser handles what could be hours of grueling testimony. "If she makes it, then I think a lot more women will come forward and be able to handle what comes out" in court, Murphy said.
Some experts said there is good reason for the alleged victim to testify.
"Who knows the facts better as far as her history than her?" asked Karen Steinhauser, a former prosecutor and visiting professor at the University of Denver School of Law. "I'm not sure I would want the judge to decide based on what other people say happened."
Steinhauser said publicity could actually increase assault reports by prompting discussions about acquaintance rape that could help remove the stigma.
"I hope people see this as a system that, yes, is difficult on victims, but if it happened the way she says it happened, it's wrong, it's a crime and people need to be held accountable for that," Steinhauser said.
Nationally, 84 percent of sexual assault victims do not go to police, most out of fear people will learn about the assault or that they will be blamed for the attack, according to a 1992 study by the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center (search) at the Medical University of South Carolina.
Center psychologist Connie Best said there are no reliable statistics to determine how a highly publicized rape case affects victim reporting rates. But she said anecdotal evidence and her own experience suggest that intense publicity discourages many victims from coming forward.
"If it's germane to the case, it should be brought out. That's due process and there's no problem with that from advocates in the field," Best said. "It's having other kinds of information made available" that creates a problem.