With Kobe Bryant having now played his last game, and with the flood of retrospectives flowing in, Bryant's 2003 rape case is once again a topic of discussion. The case is consistently described as casting a shadow over Bryant's career, but the lingering uncertainty over what really happened is reflected in the way we think about him today. As a community, our overall view of Bryant is worse than it would be if the accusations had never surfaced, but better than if he'd been convicted or if we'd otherwise confirmed the truth of those accusations.
And when you stop to think about it, that makes no sense at all.
In Bryant's case, as with many such cases, there were two competing factual pictures. He either forced himself on the complainant or had a consensual sexual encounter with her. If it was the former, he's a rapist, and he deserved not only a severe prison sentence but also all of the negative "collateral consequences" that could have been heaped on him -- expulsion from the NBA, the permanent loss of his endorsement deals and a lifelong reputation as a sexual predator, to name just a few.
On the other hand, if the encounter was consensual, then he's not a rapist at all, and shouldn't have suffered any such consequences. In that scenario, his life, his reputation, and the way we view him as a human being should be the same as if no criminal accusation had ever been made.
And the problem is that we don't know which of those scenarios is the correct one. As a result, we collectively treat him as kind of, sort of a rapist -- worse than someone who'd never been accused, but not as bad as someone who'd actually done what he was accused of -- which is the one characterization that can't possibly be accurate.
Before going further, I should acknowledge two things. First, in Bryant's case, there's no dispute that even under his version of the facts he was unfaithful to his wife. I certainly have no quarrel with those who treat that as a serious moral failing (although, as someone who believes we're all deeply flawed people with plenty of things we'd prefer to keep under wraps, I'm always a bit gun-shy when it comes to moral accusations). At the same time, we'd presumably all agree that rape is categorically different from a mutually consensual extramarital encounter, and the question here is whether Bryant deserves the dramatically stepped-up treatment due a rapist.
Second, I recognize that the standard we use to look at this case as observers doesn't have to be the same one that would have been applied in Bryant's criminal case. Concepts such as "innocent until proven guilty" and "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" are bedrock principles of the criminal justice system, but there's no logical requirement that we apply all of those principles in other contexts. For example, even if we require proof beyond a reasonable doubt before sending someone to prison based on an accusation of criminal sexual misconduct, we can legitimately decide to apply some different standard when deciding whether to socialize with that person or hire him as a babysitter.
With all that said, for those of us who want or need to come down on one side or the other, the inescapable fact is that we'll never really know what happened in that hotel room. I certainly don't. I know a woman made an accusation that, if true, would make Bryant a rapist. I know that Bryant denied those aspects of the accusation that would have made the sexual contact illegal. I know that some sex offense accusations are accurate, and others aren't. I know that in this case the legal process was terminated before any determination was made, and that even if it had proceeded to completion that wouldn't necessarily tell us with any certainty what had really happened.
And the rest of the available information doesn't conclusively answer the question. I'm familiar with the various aspects of the evidence emphasized by, respectively, the prosecutors and Bryant's lawyers. In my opinion, none of that evidence, alone or in combination, points incontrovertibly in either direction. I'd consider this a "triable" case -- one that could conceivably go either way at trial -- and I imagine most other criminal lawyers would agree.
Where does that leave us? I think if I ultimately had to pick one view or the other -- if, for example, my little boy someday wants a Kobe Bryant poster or jersey -- I'd go with Bryant's not being a rapist. Again, it doesn't make sense to treat him as "half a rapist"; he either raped the complainant or he didn't. There's no defined proof standard for me to use in the poster or jersey context. But wherever I might ultimately set that line, I don't believe the sum total of available evidence would be enough to push Bryant from "not a rapist" to "rapist" -- which, again, are the only two logical categories.
Is that satisfactory? Not entirely. And I certainly realize that others could decide differently. But in a world where logic doesn't permit an intermediate answer that accounts for the admitted uncertainty, it's the best I can do.