Kobe Tearfully Declares His Innocence

updated 07/19/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/2003 11:00AM

Behaving remarkably composed, NBA star Kobe Bryant faced reporters Friday and declared his innocence only hours after he was charged with sexually assaulting a 19-year-old woman during a recent visit to a Colorado resort.

Eagle County, Colo., District Attorney Mark Hurlburt announced at a press conference that the Los Angeles Lakers star, 24, was charged with one count of sexual assault -- a class-three felony that can carry a prison term of four years to life and a probation period of 20 years to life.

Less than four hours after Hurlburt's announcement, Bryant, clutching the hand of his wife Vanessa, 21, and never letting go, appeared at a press conference inside L.A.'s Staples Center.

"I'm innocent, you know," he said. "I didn't force her to do anything against her will. I'm innocent."

He went on to say, "I sit here in front of you guys, furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making the mistake of adultery. And I love my wife with all my heart."

As tears rolled down Bryant's face, he then told his wife: "You're my backbone. You're a blessing. You're a piece of my heart. You're the air I breathe. And you're the strongest person I know, and I'm so sorry for having to put you through this and having to put our family through this."

Bryant stressed, "I'm innocent. And together my wife and I and our family, we're going to fight these false accusations."

The alleged incident occurred June 30 at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera, a four-star lodge near the resort town of Vail where Bryant was staying and where the woman works as a concierge. On July 1, the Lakers guard was scheduled for knee surgery at Vail's Steadman Hawkins Clinic.

Hurlburt, 34, emphasized that Bryant's celebrity status did not come into play when deciding whether to press the charge. "This decision came only after reviewing all the evidence -- testimonial evidence and physical evidence ... and conferring with prosecutors from around the state," he said. "Then and only then did I make my decision."

Hurlburt said that he could prove this case "beyond the shadow of a reasonable doubt."

Prior to the announcement, Hurlburt's office had been reviewing a report from the state crime laboratory analyzing evidence in the case from both Bryant and the alleged victim, whose name has not been revealed.

At his press conference, Hurlburt said he could not comment on the facts in the case. But he did say that Bryant's court date to face the charge is Aug. 6 at 3 p.m. Hurlburt also asked members of the media "to respect the victim's privacy."

Various press reports on his accuser say she is a familiar figure in Eagle as a former high school cheerleader and musician who last year tried out to be on "American Idol."

The investigation first became public when the sheriff's office in Eagle County, Colo., about 100 miles west of Denver, announced on July 6 that an arrest warrant had been issued for Bryant. Two days earlier, Bryant turned himself and posted a $25,000 bond.

Bryant met his wife, the former Vanessa Laine, in April 2001, and the two became engaged while she was still in high school. They married in 2001, and their first child, Natalia Diamante Bryant, was born in January.

Despite the investigation, the pair attended this week's ESPY Awards in Los Angeles. Immediately following Hurlburt's announcement and prior to Kobe Bryant's press conference, Vanessa Bryant released a statement supporting her husband.

"I know that my husband has made a mistake -- the mistake of adultery. He and I will have to deal with that within our marriage, and we will do so," she said, adding, "He is not a criminal. I know that he did not commit a crime, he did not assault anyone. He is a loving and kind husband and father. I believe in his innocence."

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