The past five weeks could not have gone much worse for the team prosecuting the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case. A court clerk mistakenly released to the media transcripts of a closed hearing involving the accuser's sexual history, and the court later posted on its website a sealed document that revealed the accuser's last name, prompting an apology from trial judge Terry Ruckriegle. Lead prosecutor Mark Hurlbert withdrew from the case. Ruckriegle ruled that certain information about the accuser's sexual history was admissible and also released a transcript revealing that Bryant's accuser received more than $17,000 from a victim-compensation fund—which the defense spun to suggest that she had a financial motive to lie. Now, however, an aggressive move by prosecutors may shift the momentum, and even drag Shaquille O'Neal into court as a witness.
SI has learned that prosecutors plan to subpoena a 22-year-old Florida waitress who claims she was the object of unwanted sexual advances by Bryant. Prosecutors have notified Bryant's lawyers that the woman may be called as a witness at the trial, set to begin on Aug. 27 in Eagle, Colo. Her testimony might be used by the prosecution to show that aggressive sexual actions are part of Bryant's pattern of behavior. ( Pamela Mackey, Bryant's lead attorney, did not respond to SI's efforts to reach her.)
According to the Florida woman and others familiar with her allegation, she was among the employees of Orlando's Planet Hollywood restaurant who worked at a private party at O'Neal's home on Thanksgiving 2002. The Lakers were in Orlando to play the Magic, and O'Neal, who owns a 26,000-square-foot house in the city's Isleworth neighborhood, hosted a team dinner.
The woman alleges that Bryant approached her and asked for her cellphone number, which she provided. Later, Bryant asked her to get him a soft drink and bring it to him outside, which she did in the presence of another man. Bryant then cornered her and groped her private parts. She says Bryant laughed as she pushed him away, and that she retreated inside O'Neal's home and called her mother. The next day, the woman says, she received a call from a man who said he was an associate of Bryant's, apologizing for Bryant's behavior.
The woman did not initially report any of this to the police. But after Bryant was charged on July 18, 2003, she saw the news conference at which he said of his accuser, "I didn't force her to do anything against her will. I am innocent." This prompted the Florida woman to call Colorado prosecutors and report her alleged encounter with Bryant. After hearing her story, according to sources in the Los Angeles D.A.'s office, investigators from L.A. teamed with Eagle prosecutors and contacted O'Neal through his agent, Perry Rogers, and told him that O'Neal could become a witness in Bryant's case. Within hours the investigators heard from David Chesnoff, a criminal defense lawyer who said he represented O'Neal. Though the investigators assured him that his client was not a suspect, Chesnoff said O'Neal would not speak with them. O'Neal could, however, be called to testify in Colorado. (Chesnoff and Rogers told SI that they could not discuss anything related to their client.)
A subpoena was required for the Florida woman because she had decided that she did not want to be a witness in a case in which the accuser has been subjected to threats and smears. Her participation is significant, though, because it could cause Bryant's lawyers to think twice before calling their client to the stand. Under Colorado rules of evidence, the Florida woman can be called as a rebuttal witness by the prosecution, now led by Ingrid Bakke and Dana Easter—the career sex-crime prosecutors who took over for Hurlbert. John Wolfe, a Seattle lawyer who has represented a dozen pro athletes in sexual assault cases, says it leaves Bryant and his lawyers with a "Hobson's choice: If he doesn't testify, he loses the ability to tell the jury that it was consensual sex. If he does testify, he opens the door for another accuser to allege nonconsensual sexual activity."
If the Florida woman does testify, it will be up to the jurors to decide if they see meaningful similarities between Bryant's alleged behavior in Florida and Colorado. According to documents viewed by SI, the accuser in Colorado told police that the first nonconsensual act by Bryant was the groping of her private parts. When she resisted and tried to flee, according to her statement, Bryant allegedly restrained her and blocked the door to his room.
Speaking about Bryant's case last week on Z100 radio in Portland, O'Neal said his former teammate would need a jury of rappers—" Ludacris, Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg"—to get off. Few observers see the case as that one-sided, but Bakke and Easter may have succeeded in putting new obstacles in Bryant's path to freedom.