EAGLE, Colo., Sept. 1 -- A Colorado judge dismissed a rape charge against Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant on Wednesday after prosecutors said the woman who alleged she had been assaulted would not testify against the basketball star.
Jury selection was underway, and opening arguments were scheduled for next week. The case had the makings of one of the most high-profile celebrity trials since that of O.J. Simpson.
But in a dramatic eleventh-hour hearing late Wednesday, lawyers said the 20-year-old accuser would not go forward. District Attorney Mark Hurlbert asked the judge, "for this reason and this reason only," to drop the charge.
The dismissal ended a case that had generated intense emotions: Victim advocates had decried Judge Terry Ruckriegle's decision to allow evidence of the accuser's sexual activity in the days surrounding her encounter with Bryant and efforts by his attorneys to attack her reputation.
The woman has filed a civil lawsuit against Bryant, which is still pending. His defenders have said she is now attempting to make money off the basketball player.
Bryant, 26, acknowledged having sex with the woman at a nearby resort but said it was consensual. After the hearing, in a statement read by his attorney Pamela Mackey, he told the woman he was sorry.
"I want to apologize to her for my behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year," the statement said. "Although this year has been incredibly difficult for me personally, I can only imagine the pain she has had to endure. I also want to apologize to her parents and family members, and to my family and friends and supporters, and to the citizens of Eagle, Colorado.
"Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did."
It was unclear whether Bryant's statement was part of any negotiated end to the case. Defense lawyers left court without taking questions, and Hurlbert, after speaking to reporters, also did not answer questions.
Bryant faced the possibility of life in prison if convicted. His new $136 million contract with the Lakers would have been voided.
Bryant and the woman were not in the courtroom for the hearing, at which lawyers for both sides agreed that the charge would be dropped "with prejudice." That means Bryant cannot be charged in the same incident again.
Hurlbert, the local prosecutor who is campaigning to keep his job in the November election, told reporters after the hearing that "justice in this case has been interrupted."
"The prosecution team wants to try this case. This is the victim's personal decision. Candidly, I understand why she had misgivings about her rights being protected," he said.
In recent weeks, there were clear indications that the alleged victim had become reluctant to pursue the case. Her personal lawyer, John Clune, said her concern increased sharply when Ruckriegle ruled that evidence of her sexual activity in the days surrounding her encounter with Bryant could be made public at the trial.
Colorado's "rape shield" law would usually protect the complainant in a rape case from such disclosures, but Bryant's attorneys convinced the judge that the privacy law should not apply in this case. The Colorado Supreme Court declined to overrule the judge's decision to let evidence of her sexual history be presented to the jury.
Beyond that, mistakes by the court staff have released the woman's name to the public, and sealed transcripts dealing with her sexual history have been sent to the news media by accident. Her name, photo and whereabouts have been reported on numerous Web sites. Defense attorneys have described her in public documents as a sexually promiscuous liar and drug abuser.
The mother and father of Bryant's alleged victim wrote angry letters to the judge earlier this year, complaining that he failed to protect their daughter's privacy and reputation. The judge has apologized for the accidental release of information.
Three weeks ago, when the woman filed the civil suit against Bryant in federal court, some court observers suggested that move might be part of an "exit strategy."
"It doesn't make any sense to file a civil suit two weeks before the criminal trial unless you are planning to drop the criminal case," said Craig Silverman, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor in Denver. "If Kobe goes to trial and is acquitted, she loses a lot of her leverage for a settlement. If she is interested in getting some money, she would do better to decline to testify for the prosecution and then start negotiating over a settlement of the civil case."
The celebrity trial that has overwhelmed this small mountain village in central Colorado had its beginnings on the night of June 30, 2003, when Bryant checked into a resort in nearby Edwards, Colo. He asked the woman, a desk clerk, to come to his room.
The woman told police the next morning that the couple engaged in "mutual flirting." According to sheriff's deputies who interviewed her, she did not initially resist when Bryant hugged and kissed her. But then, she reported, the athlete gripped her by the neck, bent her over a chair and raped her.
In Los Angeles, some of Bryant's fans reacted with glee over the charge being dropped.
"The Lakers are going to be good now," said Ben Larsen, 19, who was wearing a Lakers jersey as he high-fived several friends at a mall after hearing the news. "I think she was just trying to get some money out of Kobe."
The case of People v. Kobe Bean Bryant generated hundreds of other motions involving four sets of lawyers -- the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, two lawyers representing the alleged victim, and attorneys for media organizations seeking public access to in-court proceedings and documents. Appeals in the case have gone to the Colorado Supreme Court three times and to the U.S. Supreme Court (news - web sites) twice.
Prosecutors suggested last week that Bryant has spent about $12 million on lawyers, investigators and experts to defend against the felony charge. The prosecution has not revealed its spending, but lawyers and investigators from several Colorado jurisdictions have devoted a year's time to assisting the local district attorney.
Advocates for rape victims have deplored the treatment of the alleged victim and warned that other women might be reluctant to report the crime after seeing what happened in the case.