EAGLE, Colo. – The rape case against Kobe Bryant (search) finally fell to pieces shortly after 11 a.m. on Wednesday, when his accuser called District Attorney Mark Hurlbert to say she had had enough and would no longer cooperate.
The call set in motion a series of phone calls and meetings that ended with the charges being thrown out little more than eight hours later.
But the truth is, the prosecution had seemed to be on the defensive for nearly a year. And some observers say the case should never have been brought by the D.A.
"This case started on the wrong foot, and it has been limping ever since," said Scott Robinson, a Denver defense attorney who followed the proceedings from the beginning. "It was a mistake to file this case to begin with."
Had Hurlbert done his homework, critics say, he would have discovered the young woman had been treated for psychiatric problems and was considered an attention-seeking flirt by some of her self-described friends.
During the preliminary hearing in October, Bryant defense attorney Pamela Mackey (search) nearly brought down the house by suggesting the woman's injuries could have been caused by having sex "with three different men in three days."
All of this had been thoroughly played in the media long before Hurlbert's telephone rang this week. His spokeswoman, Krista Flannigan, said the call left him with no choice but to pull the plug.
"Her basic statement was that she did not want to go forward," she said. "She cited the cumulative stress over the past 14 months."
Flannigan and the woman's attorney, John Clune, both declined to describe what was said during the call or the woman's demeanor. But Clune said no one tried to talk his 20-year-old client out of her decision.
"People tried to make her understand ramifications of going forward or not going forward to help her make the most intelligent decision," he said. "These types of cases and decisions can have such long-term effects, even as her attorney you can't tell her what she should do."
He added: "You can just arm her with as much information as possible to help her make the best decision she can make."
The case seemed weak from almost the minute it was filed in July 2003. Detectives failed to collect crucial evidence and broke a rule requiring Bryant's hospital exam to be conducted during daylight hours.
Sheriff's investigators also arrested Bryant without telling Hurlbert, who eventually filed a single felony sexual assault charge that could have landed the Los Angeles Lakers star in jail for life.
Hurlbert said he is convinced he can win a conviction, but by the time jury selection began last week, his team had lost a series of key pretrial battles over evidence.
The biggest blow came when the judge said the woman's sex life in the three days before her hospital exam could be admitted as evidence -- a step expected to help the defense back up its claim that she was promiscuous and even slept with someone hours after leaving Bryant's hotel room.
Adding insult to injury were a series of mistakes that publicized details about the 20-year-old woman. At least twice, her name was mistakenly posted on a state court Web site, and closed-hearing transcripts were accidentally e-mailed to news organizations, which published the information and helped illustrate in sordid detail why a defense expert believed the woman had sex not long after leaving the NBA star.
Not long after that, the accuser filed a civil suit against Bryant in Denver federal court -- the first clear indication, experts said, that she was going to drop out of the criminal case. She is pressing on with the suit, seeking monetary damages.
Former prosecutor Norm Early said Hurlbert had a duty to file the assault charge, but also a duty to dismiss it the minute he knew he couldn't win.
"If a prosecutor believes in the credibility of a victim in a one-on-one sexual assault allegation, and they believe she is credible and that he has proof beyond a reasonable doubt, that prosecutor has a duty to allow that case into the system," he said.
"Once that case is filed, it's also the prosecutor's duty to monitor the evidence to make sure it does not fall below the standard of reasonable doubt. Once the victim said enough is enough, the prosecutor could no longer meet that standard."
Her final demand was an apology from Bryant, and he quickly agreed -- as long as it was not made part of the civil suit.
Clune said the apology was a key part of the closed-door negotiations in the courthouse on Wednesday when everyone thought jury selection was simply wrapping up. Bryant had already left town.
Judge Terry Ruckriegle (search) was unaware of the last-minute negotiations until someone interrupted a meeting he was holding with other judges. He strode into the courtroom and took over, insisting that if the case was going to end, it had to be quickly.
Over the next several hours, attorneys in the case scurried back and forth between courtrooms and offices, holding whispered conferences in the hallway and going over language on documents reporters couldn't quite see.
At 6 p.m., in open court, Hurlbert told the judge he could not proceed because the victim no longer wanted to cooperate. Less than an hour later, he appeared at a podium outside the courthouse and told the world that justice had been "sadly interrupted."
He also insisted he was ready to go to trial, right up to the final minutes.