Rape Shield Law Challenged in the Kobe Bryant Case

Kobe Bryant, the 25-year-old guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, was accused of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old Colorado resort employee on June 30, 2003. If convicted, he faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation. Among numerous other legal challenges to the prosecution’s case against him, Bryant’s defense team has attacked the constitutionality of Colorado’s rape shield law.

Basic Legal Principles
Rape shield laws have been statutorily enacted across the nation. In general terms, rape shield laws tend to prohibit the defense from introducing an alleged victim’s prior sexual history into evidence. By limiting the defendant’s use of a victim’s sexual past, the laws attempt to prevent this evidence from being unfairly used to discredit the victim’s credibility.

Rape shield laws are intended to protect victims of sexual assault from being humiliated at trial by the disclosure of intimate details of their past. These laws are also intended to encourage victims of sexual assault to alert law enforcement authorities of the attack, as opposed to keeping it secret.

Without rape shield laws in place, victims may hesitate to disclose the incident to authorities, for fear that details regarding their sexual pasts will ultimately be disclosed. Such disclosure would likely harm not only their reputation, but also result in situations where arguably irrelevant information regarding their past is used against them in court.

The Bryant Case
At issue in the Bryant case is Colorado’s 30-year-old rape shield law. Under this law, evidence of specific instances of the victim’s prior or subsequent sexual conduct is presumed to be irrelevant, and consequently inadmissible into evidence. To overcome this statutory presumption, the defense must prove otherwise. In other words, in order to present the details of the victim’s sexual history to the jury, the defense attorneys must first convince the judge that the evidence is relevant.

In the alternative, defense attorneys may show that the evidence of sexual conduct should be allowed under a portion of Colorado’s rape shield law that sets forth exceptions to the general rule that such evidence is presumed irrelevant. For example, the statute sets forth the following exceptions:

Evidence of prior or subsequent sexual conduct with the defendant
Evidence of specific instances of sexual activity showing the source or origin of pregnancy, semen, disease, or other similar evidence of sexual intercourse offered to show that the defendant did not commit the act in question

To raise the issue at trial, Colorado’s law requires defense attorneys to file a motion with the court explaining why the evidence should be admitted. In the Bryant case, for example, his attorneys have argued that evidence of the alleged victim’s sexual conduct is relevant to determine whether her injuries may have been caused by other men.

Comparison to Other State Rape Shield Laws

Although many states have enacted rape shield laws that specify exactly what kind of evidence may be admitted at trial, legal scholars have noted that Colorado’s law grants the judge fairly wide discretion in determining whether information is relevant (and therefore, admissible). Further, while many states create an absolute bar to the presentation of such evidence, Colorado merely creates a presumption that such evidence is irrelevant. As noted, this presumption can be overcome by argument.

Bryant’s Legal Challenge

Bryant’s defense team has launched an attack on the constitutionality of Colorado’s rape shield law. They have argued that the law violates a defendant’s constitutional right of equal protection.