EAGLE, Colo. -- The Kobe Bryant case collapsed Wednesday as prosecutors abruptly dropped the sexual assault charge against the NBA star, saying his 20-year-old accuser no longer wanted to participate after a series of embarrassing courthouse gaffes.
The dramatic turn in the case against one the NBA's brightest young stars came in the middle of jury selection and less than a week before opening statements were scheduled to begin. Prosecutors insisted they had enough evidence to win a conviction despite losing a key series of pretrial rulings.
"This decision is not based upon a lack of belief in the victim -- she is an extremely credible and an extremely brave young woman," District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said outside the courthouse. "Ultimately, we respect her decision 100 percent."
In a statement from his attorney, Bryant apologized for his "behavior that night and for the consequences she has suffered in the past year."
"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," said Bryant, a married father of one who still faces a civil lawsuit filed by the woman that seeks unspecified damages.
In court, one of the woman's lawyers, John Clune, said Bryant's apology factored into her decision to drop out of the case.
"Kobe was facing life in prison for a crime he did not commit," Bryant attorneys Pamela Mackey and Hal Haddon told ESPN's Jim Gray. "The accuser insisted on that statement as the price for his freedom. The statement doesn't change the facts: Kobe is innocent and now he is free."
Prosecutors spent at least $200,000 preparing for what was expected to be one of the most closely watched trials in the nation, and one that had gripped this mountain town and much of Colorado for 14 months. Yet the case would have ultimately rested on the testimony of a young woman the defense suggested was a promiscuous, attention-seeking liar. And after mistakes that revealed her identity, at least two death threats and relentless media attention, she apparently had had enough.
"The difficulties that this case has imposed on this woman the past year are unimaginable," said John Clune, one of her attorneys. He said she has been through a difficult time and was particularly disturbed by mistakes including the release of her name on a state courts Web site and her medical history to attorneys.
With the parents of the woman looking on, District Judge Terry Ruckriegle threw out the case under a deal that means charges will not be refiled. He said he took full responsibility for the gaffes, but blamed Colorado lawmakers for slashing the budgets of the judicial system.
Ruckriegle also said the case ended without full resolution.
"It will of course always leave a question in the mind of everyone because as several of the [prospective] jurors have stated, only two people know what happened," he said.
Legal experts said court rulings hurt the prosecution's case, including a decision allowing her sex life in the days surrounding her encounter with Bryant to be admitted as evidence. This was expected to bolster the defense contention that she slept with someone after leaving Bryant and before she went to a hospital exam -- a potentially key blow to her credibility.
"You can't make a case when there is no case," said attorney Lisa Wayne, who has defended clients in numerous sexual assault cases. "The prosecution has to take responsibility."
The pending civil case would also allow defense attorneys to argue the woman had financial motive to accuse Bryant of assault. Bryant's defense team has long argued she falsely accused him to gain the attention of a former boyfriend, and that she was given nearly $20,000 from a victims' compensation fund.
Bryant, 26, tearfully admitted more than a year ago that he had consensual sex with the then-19-year-old employee of a Vail-area resort where he stayed last summer. If convicted, the Los Angeles Lakers star would have faced four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000.
Like the criminal case, the civil suit accuses Bryant of attacking the woman in his room at the Cordillera resort, causing her emotional and physical problems that linger to this day.
Her attorneys accuse Bryant of flirting with the woman, a front desk employee, during a tour of the resort. After the two ended up in his room, they began to kiss.
The woman's attorneys said at some point during the kissing "Bryant's voice became deeper and his acts became rougher" as he began to grope the woman. She asked him to stop, but Bryant allegedly blocked her exit, grabbed her and forced her over a chair to rape her. Bryant's hands were around the woman's neck, the attorneys said -- "a perceived threat of potential strangulation if she resisted his advances."
An attorney for the woman, L. Lin Wood, said the civil case was still on.
"There has been no settlement of the civil lawsuit and there have been no discussions concerning a settlement," he said.
Criminal defense attorney Tony West, speaking on ESPN's "Outside the Lines," said the dismissal strengthens Bryant's position in the civil case.
"If she emerged from this criminal case with a cloud over her credibility, that would really hurt her in the civil case," West said. "I think that is clearly what the case is now. There are people who can't look at this situation and come away with any other conclusion than that someone who's not willing to testify in the criminal case when Kobe's facing a great deal of possible prison time, but she is willing to testify in the civil case where she stands to get some money, I think that really damages her credibility."
Larry Pozner, a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said he did not think Bryant's statement suggested an interest in settling the civil lawsuit.
"I would have guessed today would have been a global settlement [covering both cases]," he said. "If it isn't, it's because the defense has told them, 'We aren't paying you very much, and if you want to continue, bring it on.' "
In Eagle, however, the scrutiny will soon fade. Mayor Jon Stavney said many residents had grown weary of the attention.
"We were braced for the long haul, but I am sure the people will see this as a relief," he said. He said he knew several prospective jurors who were dismissed during the questioning, and said people had told them "lucky you."
"I think people are pretty clear it was going to be an ordeal," he said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.