Final twist means no trial

EAGLE, Colo. -- As court ended for the day at 1 p.m. mountain time Wednesday, the crew from Court TV began wiring the courtroom for the closed-circuit TV coverage they would provide to the media Thursday for what was scheduled to be open voir dire for 174 jurors in the Kobe Bryant criminal case. Suddenly, the court administrator raced over and locked the doors, offering no explanation, but the action was clear: Something big was happening. ABC News was reporting that the prosecution was filing a motion to dismiss and we were scrambling back to our set to lead off SportsCenter with ABC's report.

After we reported for the early SportsCenter, I was cut loose to go into the now-unlocked courthouse to find out what was what. Inside was a bustle of activity -- attorneys for the defense were talking with attorneys for the prosecution and the accuser, going in one room and then into another. At one point, Bryant's attorney, Pamela Mackey walked out to talk with John Clune, the accuser's attorney. Their conversation seemed cordial, but intense. When she left, the door opened enough for us to see D.A. Mark Hurlbert sitting at the prosecution table, his arms folded. Nobody, really, knew what was going on.

But then the D.A.'s staff and courthouse staff walked into the hallway, where prosecutor Dana Easter, who was to give the opening statement next Tuesday, was hugging a staffer and saying, "Hey, you did all you can do."

The accuser's parents appeared and it became clear that we had just gotten confirmation that ABC's report was accurate. Prosecution spokesman Krista Flannigan greeted them with big hugs and resolute sighs. They stayed outside the courthouse and as the pool camera in the hallway attempted to zoom in on the trio, members of the D.A.'s staff moved in to block the camera's view -- an obvious attempt at solidarity.

For the last 14 months, these staffers had worked feverishly on this case, I'm told believing completely in the young woman's accusations against Bryant. They had come to know her and her family and now, even as their case was falling apart, they were trying to afford her family some dignity.

When open court was called at 5:45 p.m., we all filed in and filled every single seat in the courtroom. It was stiflingly hot and the tension was extreme. Finally, the judge appeared and the D.A. tendered his motion to dismiss. Then Clune made an emotional speech indicating that his client had been so traumatized that she was unable to go forward. It was shocking to hear the words that would end the high-profile case.

No explanation as to the timing was given by anyone. No reason was given for why after 14 months, some 700 motions and within days of scheduled opening statements, she had decided she didn't want to testify.

We were baffled, confused. And then we saw the statement issued by Bryant, one apologizing to the accuser for his behavior, and understanding how she could see that the sex wasn't consensual -- barely stopping short of saying he did it. And then the penny dropped, with a wink and a nod (most likely), a cash settlement had just been made.

The details of this case, which we would have heard in open court, would have smeared both the defendant's and accuser's reputations even more than they already had been smeared. Even if this encounter was consensual, this was not a loving, romantic one-night stand; rather, this was Bryant allegedly bending a girl over a chair within 15 minutes of meeting her. His image, had all the sordid details of that night been recalled at trial, could not have been rehabilitated. Hers already is shot.

Even after five hours of live and taped television, I was stunned, shocked and a little bit mad. My parents live in Colorado and hence pay the taxes that paid for this case which cost the state a lot of money. If the prosecution knew its accuser was so fragile, they had to know it a long time ago. But we still have no answer as to why they kept on. We may never know.

It was a horrible year for the accuser and for Bryant, a very private man who had to have his worst nightmare played out in a very public arena.

In the end, his attorneys said through a statement that the accuser required the apology before she would agree not to testify, and that they continued to proclaim his innocence. The matter now will be decided by a civil suit ... or not.

ESPN reporter Shelley Smith has been covering the events leading to the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case since July 2003.