Colorado pushes to protect rape victims' identities

Monday, January 19, 2004

DENVER -- After a resort worker accused Kobe Bryant of rape, her identity was splashed around the world on Web sites, the cover of a supermarket tabloid and a radio broadcast. The basketball star's attorney said the woman's name six times during a court hearing.

Now, two state legislators have proposed tighter legal protections for people who report being raped, citing the hate mail and death threats that targeted the 19-year-old accuser after her name was published.

Without the extra protection, the release of identities "could have a real chilling effect and prevent victims from coming forward," Democratic state Sen. Peter Groff said.

Rape shield laws in many states already protect the identities of alleged victims. Virtually all U.S. news organizations, including The Associated Press, have policies against releasing the names.

Protecting Jane Does

Groff's measure would allow prosecutors to decide whether to list accusers' names in legal proceedings under a pseudonym, such as Jane Doe.

Republican state Sen. Bruce Cairns proposed a bill that would allow victims to sue the people who released their names for actual damages, collect a $5,000 civil penalty and be repaid for attorney fees and costs.

The bill also would allow victims to have an advocate at their side when interviewed by police.

Neither bill has been set for a legislative hearing.

Prosecutors say judges already have the discretion to keep the names secret through court rules. They also are concerned about expanding the involvement of victims' advocates, which has come up in the Bryant case.

Bryant's attorneys want a judge to turn over the notes taken by a victim's advocate when police interviewed the basketball star's accuser. Prosecutors say the notes are protected by medical privacy laws.

"We're concerned they will inject themselves into the process and become potential witnesses," said Peter Weir, executive director of the Colorado District Attorney's Council.

Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault after his accuser told authorities he attacked her June 30 at a resort where she worked. The Los Angeles Lakers guard has claimed the sex was consensual. A pretrial hearing is set for Friday in Eagle, west of Denver.

Shortly after Bryant was arrested, the accuser's name was posted on Internet sites and broadcast on a radio talk show heard in 60 cities. The Globe tabloid put her name and photograph on its cover last fall. She also received two death threats, and charges are pending in those cases.

A judge ordered lawyers and investigators to keep the woman's identity secret, but that does not extend to the news media. Such laws have been ruled an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of the press.

Bryant's attorneys did not return a message seeking comment. Last month, they argued that the state's rape shield law should be overturned because it violates a defendant's rights to confront his accuser.

Media attorney Tom Kelley said the two bills will do little to protect rape victims because the news media has a legitimate right to learn the identities of victims and check facts.

"Sooner or later, the identity of the victim will get out. To try to enforce a scorched earth policy against anyone disclosing the name really doesn't make a lot of sense," Kelley said.

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