EAGLE, Colo. – The criminal case against Kobe Bryant (search) case collapsed Wednesday as prosecutors dropped the sexual assault charge against him, saying they had no choice because the NBA star's accuser no longer wanted to participate.
Bryant, whose trial had been days from opening arguments, responded with an apology to the woman who had accused him and whose civil suit for damages is still pending.
"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did," Bryant said. "I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter."
The woman's attorney, John Clune (search), said she has been through an extremely difficult time since she alleged she was raped, and that she was disturbed by a series of courthouse mistakes that included release of her name and medical history. She has been the subject of death threats and relentless media coverage in the high-profile case.
"It is in her sincere belief that when this case ends, she does not want to be brought back into the criminal process," Clune said.
"The difficulties that this case has imposed on this woman the past year are unimaginable."
The dismissal marks a dramatic but not entirely unexpected turn in the high-profile case against one the NBA's brightest young stars. For months, prosecutors had insisted they had a strong enough case to win a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt, but legal experts said their case was greatly weakened when Bryant's attorneys convinced the judge to allow some evidence about his accuser's sexual history.
Outside the courthouse, District Attorney Mark Hurlbert (search) said the decision to drop the case "is not based upon a lack of belief in the victim — she is an extremely credible and an extremely brave young woman."
"A trial can be traumatic for any victim of any crime, more so with the victim of a sexual assault, and even more so with the victim of a sexual assault whose victimization has been subject to worldwide scrutiny," Hurlbert said.
With the parents of the 20-year-old alleged victim looking on, District Judge Terry Ruckriegle (search) threw out the case under a deal that means no charges will be refiled. Neither Bryant nor his accuser were in the courtroom.
Prosecutors dropped the case after spending at least $200,000 and just days before opening statements were scheduled to begin on Tuesday. Jury selection was scheduled to wrap up this week.
Bryant, 26, has said he had consensual sex with a then-19-year-old employee of a Vail-area resort where he stayed last summer. Had he been convicted, the Los Angeles Lakers (search) star would have faced four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000.
Bryant apologized to the victim "for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year."
"Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure," said Bryant, who also apologized to her family, his family and friends and the citizens of Eagle.
Bryant said the civil case against him "will be decided by and between the parties directly involved in the incident and will no longer be a financial or emotional drain on the citizens of the state of Colorado."
"I also want to make it clear that I do not question the motives of this young woman," Bryant said. "No money has been paid to this woman. She has agreed that this statement will not be used against me in the civil case."
Larry Pozner, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said although Bryant's statement was apologetic, he did not think it suggested an interest in settling the civil lawsuit.
"I would have guessed today would have been a global settlement (covering both cases)," he said. "If it isn't, it's because the defense has told them, `We aren't paying you very much, and if you want to continue, bring it on."'
Legal experts said a series of court rulings hurt the prosecution's case, including a decision allowing the woman's sex life in the days surrounding her encounter with Bryant to be admitted as evidence. This was expected to bolster the defense contention that she slept with someone after leaving Bryant and before she went to a hospital exam — a potentially key blow to her credibility.
The pending civil case would have also allowed defense attorneys to argue the woman had a financial motive to accuse Bryant of assault. Bryant's defense team has long argued she falsely accused him to gain the attention of a former boyfriend, and that she was given nearly $20,000 from a victims' compensation fund.
Attorneys for the accuser complained of several damaging accidental releases of information in the case by court officials. The accuser's name was accidentally released at least twice.
Ruckriegle admitted mistakes had been made and took full responsibility. But he also blamed Colorado lawmakers for slashing the budgets of the state courts system, saying less staff and more work "was bound to result in mistakes."
Defense attorneys had asked the judge to dismiss the assault charge hours before it was dismissed, saying prosecutors had refused to turn over details that could suggest he is innocent. Court rules require prosecutors and defense attorneys to exchange evidence and witness opinions before trial, a process called discovery.
In a motion, defense attorneys said a forensics expert whom prosecutors had once planned to call as a witness had information that "undermined the accuser's allegations and the prosecution's case." The judge set a deadline for prosecutors to respond, but the move was moot a short time later.
The accuser's lawsuit, like the criminal case, accuses Bryant of attacking her in his room at the Cordillera resort near Edwards, causing her emotional and physical problems that linger to this day.
The attorneys accused Bryant of flirting with the woman, a front desk employee, during a tour of the resort. After the two ended up in his room, they began to kiss. Investigators have said the encounter turned violent after flirting by both Bryant and his accuser, and that she told Bryant "no" at least twice.
In the civil suit, the attorneys said at some point during the kissing "Bryant's voice became deeper and his acts became rougher" as he began to grope the woman. She asked him to stop, but Bryant allegedly blocked her exit, grabbed her and forced her over a chair to rape her. Bryant's hands were around the woman's neck, the attorneys said — "a perceived threat of potential strangulation if she resisted his advances."