That is the sort of debate over the case that is left. The end of the case came Wednesday, with the banal emptiness of a “never mind”: all charges against Mr. Bryant summarily dropped. It was as though they had never been lodged – everything swept away but the messy recriminations and the second-guessing that are likely to haunt the district attorney’s offices in Eagle County, Colo., for years to come.
But legal experts and former sex-crimes prosecutors who have followed the case say that the messy details – how the prosecution of Mr. Bryant came to be and how it fell apart – could ultimately become as important as the criminal procedure itself in how people understand what really happened on June 30, 2003, when Mr. Bryant and his accuser met at a hotel near Vail.
¶ The case, many legal experts agree, appears to have been rushed from the beginning, with the local police moving forward with an arrest before the prosecutor was ready, and the prosecutor moving forward before some crucial pieces of evidence were fully understood.
¶ Unforeseen events all went in Mr. Bryant’s favor, as court clerks accidentally released on three occasions sealed information that revealed information about Mr. Bryant’s accuser.
¶ Under the glare of worldwide news media attention, and the compounding effects of the missteps, Mr. Bryant’s accuser more and more came to be seen as a witness with huge issues that the defense could use to attack her credibility.
Poking through the ashes in this way also circles back to the central question: how many of the factors were knowable, preventable failures of judgment or diligence, and how many were simply the blind luck of the draw that every lawyer knows well. Cases sometimes just blow up no matter how hard lawyers try to prepare for every eventuality.
The woman, a 20-year-old former hotel front desk clerk who has not been officially identified, said she went to Mr. Bryant’s room, where they kissed and flirted. She said that he then became violent, pushed her over a chair and raped her. Mr. Bryant, in pleading not guilty, said the sex was consensual.
The district attorney, Mark Hurlbert, said in a statement on Wednesday that the only reason the case was collapsing was the reluctance of the star witness to continue, and that if he had his way, he would still take his evidence to a jury.
Legal scholars who have closely watched the case say there is a messy fact in Mr. Hurlbert’s message: The woman had probably become less and less appealing to him as a star witness in his case in recent weeks. She filed a separate civil suit against Mr. Bryant last month seeking financial damages, which opened her up to the charge that she had a monetary incentive to see him convicted because that would make her civil case stronger.
But Mr. Hurlbert probably could not have been expected to see the curve balls coming his way. In the final hectic month before Wednesday’s denouement, the filing of the civil case coincided with the repeated accidental release of sealed court information. Mr. Hurlbert’s office had no control over these developments, and collectively they might also have given Mr. Bryant’s accuser good reason to back out from the criminal trial. The woman’s family and her lawyers repeatedly said that her life was being torn apart by the strains of the case and the widespread hostility that she received from Mr. Bryant’s many supporters and fans.