Jurors of the ballot box

EAGLE, Colo. -- From the tawdry chapters, plots, sub-plots and bizarre incidents tied to Kobe Bryant as he fought a sexual assault charge that could've sent him to prison for life, one more story line unspools.

Local-boy-makes-good district attorney Mark Hurlbert, who tried unsuccessfully to send the one-time NBA golden child to the pen, is up for re-election.

It's a tiny drama, sure. But the fact that such a mundane event in ski country is drawing any notice outside Colorado's Fifth Judicial District speaks to the lingering effect the often X-rated Bryant case has left in a region where wheat fields abut million-dollar faux French chalets, and Audis seem to outnumber cattle.

Hurlbert's fate won't be a done deal until Tuesday in this four-county district of 82,000 people, split between working folk and the high-rollers in toney resort towns like Vail and Breckenridge. Indeed, a quiet perception still lingers among some denizens of the local coffee shop, diner, saloon and editorial page that the 35-year-old Hurlbert blew it -- along with an estimated $300,000 of taxpayer dough -- by not bringing Bryant to justice.

But considering the local electorate's political passivity -- many say they're more interested in elk hunting, the Denver Broncos and the faraway Bush-Kerry presidential faceoff -- their muffled disgust shouldn't keep Hurlbert from solidifying his claim to the $80,000-a-year job he landed by gubernatorial fiat in late 2002.

Little did the deliberate young DA suspect that all hell would break loose eight months into his posting.

Bryant, in town for knee surgery at the renowned Steadman Hawkins Clinic, was soon charged after a 19-year-old local woman alleged that he sexually assaulted her at the exclusive Lodge & Spa at Cordillera on the last day of June, 2003. Over the next 14 months, Hurlbert was consumed by non-stop, often-savage media coverage not seen since O.J. Simpson's murder trial; death threats against the accuser; more than 700 courtroom motions; and an aggressive defense mounted by Bryant's pricey team of attorneys and investigators.

The spectacle even featured a fly-over leaflet drop by white supremacists. Apparently, the Sports Illustrated cover with Bryant's mug shot wasn't enough for them, nor for the person from California who threatened to blow up the Eagle County courthouse and everyone in it.

Bryant admitted he was an adulterer, but not a rapist, and he spent a reported $10 million in a failed attempt to prove it. The Los Angeles Laker guard's relentlessly pressing defense finally forced the accuser to cave, and Hurlbert dropped the felony charge in The People vs. Kobe Bean Bryant, case number 03 CR204, on Sept. 1.

Leaving behind a hollow-sounding apology to the plaintiff, Bryant immediately flew back to his home in Newport Beach, Calif., his wife, their baby and comments from ex-Lakers coach Phil Jackson that his former protégé was nothing but a petulant, selfish punk.

Back in Eagle, a disappointed Hurlbert, who'd spent an unprecedented $300,000 on the effort, said he'd put together a "great case" against the NBA All-Star. Then, the rookie DA waded into the first election campaign of his career that some murmured might spell his end. So far, though, it has pretty much been deep powder for the young Republican who loves to ski.

"Things have gone pretty much how I expected," Hurlbert says. "There haven't been a lot of surprises. The case really hasn't come up, other than some people offering me condolences."

Hurlbert, a Dartmouth graduate who went to high school in neighboring Summit County, is a deliberate, articulate fellow who sometimes wears leather sandals to complement his business suit. He has a wife who's also an attorney and two young children. He admires Cal Ripken Jr.'s work ethic. And he's confident he'll win his race.

No wonder. His Democrat opponent is the relatively unknown Bruce Brown, a 42-year-old criminal defense attorney who works primarily in Denver. Brown points to the Bryant case, as well as the supposedly high turnover in Hurlbert's office, as proof that the incumbent should get the gate.

"That [Bryant] case pointed up a lot of serious problems in the DA's office that have been there for some time," Brown argues. "There has been a repeated failure to carry cases to completion, too many dismissals. There's no confidence in the office's ability to prosecute."

Hulbert, who spent 10 years as an assistant DA before getting the top job, angered a few locals for not aggressively pursuing another rape case in early 2003. He also caught flak last year when he didn't charge a skier in the death of another down-hiller in a Breckenridge mountain accident.

But the district's more influential players -- mayors, fellow attornies, sheriffs and the local newspapers -- like Hurlbert quite a bit. They point to the high-wire nature of a job in which he's a prosecutor, bureaucrat and politician who must juggle 12,000 cases a year. They point to the fact that opponent Brown has never prosecuted a case. It doesn't help that he also has been labeled an "outsider" because of his native California roots.

David Drawbert, a defense attorney in Breckenridge and Hurlbert's friend, calls the Bryant case a "lose-lose for everyone." But that, he insists, can't be pinned on the DA.

"We all have a bad taste in our mouths about how it turned out, including the judge, the court clerk, the police, the investigators and the DA's office," Drawbert says. "I don't blame Mark for that. He may have made a few mistakes, but he'll never repeat 'em. He's a very intelligent, above-board guy ... a straight shooter who does his job very quietly and effectively."

Yet, doubters remain.

Vickie Wise, the head breakfast cook at the Eagle Diner just off busy Interstate 70, plans to vote for Brown, chiefly out of annoyance over Hurlbert's handling of the Bryant affair.

"I don't think they did such a good job," she says, checking on the sparse breakfast crowd after spending the last year cooking around the clock for the media hordes that invaded this old ranching community that's beginning to look more like a San Diego suburb. "I would've liked to see the whole case go all the way through. A lot of other people would've, too."

Adds Brian Acker, the owner of Cambria Coffee Co. in Eagle's quaint downtown where buildings reminiscent of "Gunsmoke" stand next to modern office buildings carved from sandstone: "They [the DA's office] spent a lot of money, and for what? A lot of people have it tough in this valley, economically, and that doesn't sit well."

Hurlbert's re-election Web site says almost nothing about the Bryant case. And all that the DA says these days is that the ordeal made him a tougher, smarter prosecutor. It pointed up the dents in Colorado's hotly debated rape-shield law. And it taught him a lot about media dynamics, for whatever that's worth.

"It's something that I think everyone just wants to see go away," Hurlbert notes, matter-of-factly.

The election, however, won't be the end of the story.

The alleged victim -- almost as well known in this picturesque valley as Hurlbert and Bryant are -- has filed a civil suit in Denver federal court. She's asking for unspecified damages from the 26-year-old guard, whose Lakers contract is reportedly worth $126 million.

It's similar to the civil suits filed against O.J. Simpson after he was acquitted of murdering his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman. After a long, wrenching trial several years ago, the families of the victims were awarded $33 million. They're still trying to collect.

Bob Diddlebock is a writer and editor based in Denver.