NBA star Kobe Bryant’s sudden death in a helicopter crash this week sparked an outpouring of tributes from basketball fans.
- Kobe Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old Colorado hotel concierge when he was 24
- The case was supposed to go to a jury trial in August 2004, but the woman said she could no longer continue
- A civil case was settled for an undisclosed sum in 2005
But one of the most controversial moments in his life triggered a very different response.
A 2003 rape allegation against the star, which was dismissed in 2004 after the young woman involved told prosecutors she could not continue with the case, was brought back into the spotlight.
A Washington Post reporter was placed on “administrative leave” for two days after tweeting a link to a story on the case, and actress Evan Rachel Wood locked down her Twitter account after a post about it.
What was the allegation?
In June 2003, Bryant went to Edwards, Colorado for knee surgery, staying at the luxury Lodge and Spa at Cordillera.
The then 24-year-old Los Angeles Lakers player was already a household name.
By 2003, he had played in three championships for the Lakers, who took out back-to-back NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002.
The woman, who was not identified and was 19 at the time, told police Bryant raped her in his room on June 30 after arriving at the hotel near the skiing town of Vail.
She was a concierge at the hotel and a college student.
Bryant was arrested in early July and said while he’d had consensual sex with her, he denied the assault.
He was already married to wife Vanessa, and his first daughter Natalia was born in January 2003. In his public statement after the alleged assault, Vanessa appeared alongside him but did not speak.
Bryant said at the press conference that he was innocent, but added: “I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery.”
What happened in the case?
Given Bryant’s celebrity, the case was always going to be a high-profile one.
After the arrest, prosecutors and Bryant’s defence battled for almost a year over the evidence the jury should hear.
Prosecutors claimed Bryant held the alleged victim by the throat and forced her to have sex with him over a chair after she visited his room, and said he then asked her not to tell anyone about the encounter.
Bryant’s lawyers maintained the woman agreed to sex, and painted his accuser as an emotionally unstable, attention-seeking and promiscuous young woman who may have had sex with other men immediately before and after her encounter with Bryant.
At a preliminary hearing in October 2003, Eagle County Sheriff’s Detective Doug Winters said that, according to the woman’s account, as she stood up to leave, Bryant gave her a hug that led to some consensual kissing.
But when she turned to go, Bryant grabbed her by the neck, pulled up her black dress and raped her against a chair, Detective Winters said, adding she said she told Bryant “no” at least twice.
The case was supposed to go to a jury trial on August 27 but did not, after the woman told prosecutors she could not go on with the case.
She had received death threats, and District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said: “This motion is to dismiss based on the sole fact that the victim is unable to continue.”
After the case, Bryant issued a statement apologising to her without admitting any wrongdoing.
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognise now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way that I did,” the statement read.
If found guilty in a criminal case, Bryant could have faced life in prison and a fine of up to $US750,000.
A civil case was settled for an undisclosed sum in 2005.
What’s the response been since his death?
The Washington Post’s national political reporter Felicia Sonmez tweeted a link to a story about the case in the hours after Bryant’s death on Sunday (local time).
That sparked a reaction from his fans, with #FireFeliciaSonmez trending later that day.
But others supported Ms Sonmez, who received death threats over the tweet. Reporters at the paper signed a letter backing her and calling for more support from the publication, given the threats made against her.
The headline of the story she tweeted on Sunday read: “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story and the Half-Confession”.
Tweet @Feliciasonmez I believe that Washington Post readers and employees, including myself, deserve to hear directly from @PostBaron on the newspaper’s handling of this matter. My statement on The Post’s decision tonight:
By Tuesday, the newspaper released a statement saying an internal review had found Ms Sonmez was not in “direct violation” of its social media policy.
Managing editor Tracy Grant said in the statement: “We consistently urge restraint, which is particularly important when there are tragic deaths. We regret having spoken publicly about a personnel matter.”
The hillside where the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter and several others crashed. (USA Today Sports: Jayne Kamin-Oncea)
On the afternoon of Bryant’s death, actor Evan Rachel Wood tweeted: “What has happened is tragic. I am heartbroken for Kobe’s family. He was a sports hero. He was also a rapist. And all of these truths can exist simultaneously.”
Wood followed up with a reply, saying it was not a “condemnation or a celebration” of the veteran player.
“It was a reminder that everyone will have different feelings and there is room for us all to grieve together instead of fighting,” she said.
She later locked down her Twitter account.
Wood has spoken out on sexual assault in the past, testifying in to the US Congress in 2018 about her experience of rape.