After 44 filings, 800 pleadings and 999 jury summonses, jury selection was finally under way in the long-awaited case of People v. Bryant. So prosecutors were not quite ready to believe the phone call that came into the district attorney's office in Eagle, Colo., on the night of Aug. 31. "We heard, not from [the accuser], but from her counsel, that she just couldn't do it," says Dana Easter, one of the lead prosecutors. "We said, 'We have to talk to her.' " The next morning, still not certain that their star witness was refusing to testify, Easter went to court to continue jury selection. She was vetting candidates when the second call came—this time from the young woman herself: Kobe Bryant's accuser had decided not to proceed.
If that was the whimper, the bang was the noisy speculation afterward. The prosecution, said many observers, had a weak case that should never have been brought at a cost of nearly $400,000 to Colorado taxpayers. The accuser's recent sexual past was problematic; some thought the DA's office acted too hastily. "You can't make a case when there is no case," said Denver defense attorney Lisa Wayne. But in an interview with People, Easter, speaking publicly for the first time, maintains that the prosecution case was strong, and that it was only the accuser's resolve to see the difficult trial through that was, finally, lacking. "It was a horrible daily struggle for her," Easter says of the now 20-year-old woman whose sexual encounter with Bryant in June 2003 resulted in a rape charge against the Laker star. "It has been a struggle for her every step of the way."
L. Lin Wood, the accuser's attorney in a civil suit, puts a different spin on her withdrawal, saying she would have proceeded "if Bryant had refused to issue the signed public statement" that he released Sept. 1. In it, he apologized for both his "behavior that night" and her subsequent suffering. "Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual," he said, "I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did."
From the very start, the accuser was reluctant to come forward. "I can put myself in her place," says Easter, 50. "A lot of young women's thoughts are about saving their parents from that type of pain. Also, fear, shame, embarrassment." The accuser's doubts only deepened as she received hundreds of death threats; was hounded by a press that disclosed her name and publicized rumors about her mental health and sex life; and the court mistakenly leaked confidential documents. "There has been a lot of talk that she allegedly slept with someone after [the Bryant encounter]," says Easter, citing the hottest of the many controversial issues featured in press accounts. "That is absolutely not true."
Contrary to the portrait of the accuser painted by the defense—a starstruck girl who eagerly followed Bryant to his room at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera in Edwards, Colo.—Easter says that the accuser barely knew who Bryant was. Rather, when she learned that a friend who worked as a bellboy at the hotel was a fan, she decided to seek out Bryant's autograph for her coworker. According to Easter, this same bellboy told the woman that Bryant was "the good boy of the NBA."
Once inside Bryant's room, the two chatted briefly. When the woman got up to leave, "he asked for a hug, and she did that," says Easter. "Then he started to kiss her, and when she tried to stop, that is when he turned into a different person." By the accuser's account, Bryant grabbed the woman around the neck with both hands, bent her over a chair and penetrated her. "Whenever she would try to resist, he would clamp down harder on her throat," says Easter. "He was very degrading and demeaning." (Citing the pending civil suit, Bryant's lawyers have declined all comment.)
For the young woman, the act of coming forward proved her briefing for a descent into hell. "People have been very cruel," says Easter. "They have been laughing and whispering and pointing." Sleep has eluded her; jobs have slipped through her fingers as gawkers have descended. "She has had to move to five different states," says Easter. Her current boyfriend in Florida was recently served a court summons by the defense, a move Easter says the accuser found intimidating.
While many court watchers believe the accuser ditched the criminal case in exchange for what will prove to be a multimillion-dollar settlement from Bryant in her pending civil suit, Easter doesn't regard this as a case of greed or checkbook justice. "Her attorney tells me she has never discussed wanting money," says Easter. But didn't she have some moral responsibility to pursue criminal charges? "I completely understand why she did what she did," Easter says. "I don't know how she stood it as long as she did."
Jill Smolowe. Vickie Bane in Golden, Colo.
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine