Prosecuting in the media spotlight
BRECKENRIDGE – Mark Hurlbert’s phone has been ringing a lot lately. When it’s not reporters working for nationally known newspapers and television shows, it’s friends he hasn’t talked to in years. They see him on TV and call him up.
As the Fifth Judicial District Attorney, Mark Hurlbert is learning in a hurry what it’s like to be in the spotlight. For the second time in six months, a case that has come across his desk is bringing with it a deluge of reporters, TV cameras and the pressure to do the prosecuting job right.
It’s a side of the job he never expected.
“It’s been tiring,” Hurlbert said Tuesday from his Summit County office, behind a veneer of voice mail directing reporters to call his Eagle County office. “It’s certainly an experience.”
The media’s big guns want to talk to Hurlbert as he weighs whether or not to file charges against NBA phenom Kobe Bryant. The 24-year-old Los Angeles Lakers guard, with league championships and MVP honors to his credit, turned himself in to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office July 4 after flying back from California. He was released after paying a $25,000 bond.
Hurlbert is reviewing evidence in a sealed investigation into allegations of sexual assault against a woman in Eagle County. The Denver Post reported that Bryant was in Eagle County from June 30 to July 3 and underwent knee surgery at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic.
Hurlbert held a news conference Monday at the Eagle County Justice Center to discuss the case. Nearly 50 journalists crowded the building to ask Hurlbert questions. Television cameras recorded footage that was used for segments on MSNBC, CNN, FO News’ “O’Reilly Factor” and a host of sports shows.
It’s not the first time Hurlbert has had the chance to check his hair for national TV.
In March, a skier death case put Hurlbert behind the microphone for the first time. Following a collision at Breckenridge Ski Resort that killed a 56-year-old man from Illinois, Hurlbert had to decide whether or not to file charges against the other man in the crash, Englishman Robert Wills. The case attracted a flurry of international attention. Reporters from the British Broadcasting Corporation, several London newspapers and periodicals from throughout the United States inquired about details of the accident and a possible court case, forcing Summit County authorities to change messages on voicemail systems to deal with increased calls. Breckenridge officials interviewed with national television shows, as well, and the New York Times carried the story of Wills’ arrest.
Hurlbert concluded there was not enough evidence to indicate Wills was negligent or out of control, so he dropped the case. The family of the victim filed a civil suit the day Hurlbert announced his decision.
For Hurlbert, a hometown hero of sorts who graduated from Summit High School and attended law school in Colorado, the media attention is a side of the job he hadn’t planned on.
“This wasn’t what I was thinking about in law school,” Hurlbert said. “The (public relations) side of the job was unexpected. Dealing with the local press became something I realized was a part of the job. Dealing with the national press, that’s something else.”
But it’s only a matter of time before a district attorney in this part of Colorado has to deal with talk shows, headlines and cable news pundits, said Hurlbert’s predecessor and former boss, Michael Goodbee. Goodbee won two terms as district attorney before taking a job heading the criminal division of the state’s attorney general’s office. Goodbee said Tuesday that district attorneys covering Summit and Eagle counties (the Fifth District also includes Lake and Clear Creek counties) should expect publicity.
“Because of the ski areas and the world-class resorts – the celebrities they attract – it’s simply a matter of time before a high-profile case hits,” Goodbee said.
Goodbee’s first brush with prosecuting a celebrity was close to 10 years ago when he handled a speeding ticket issued to tennis great Chris Evert.
The pressure of doing the job right is compounded by having to talk about it on TV, Goodbee said. Being a district attorney is full of stress, and making mistakes is not an option – a slip-up can lead to a mistrial or an appeal.
“What went through my mind was always, “I hope I don’t say anything stupid,'” Goodbee said. “Not only do you have that pressure, but if you cross a line, you may find yourself in trouble with the court.”
Hurlbert worked with Goodbee on two high-profile cases: the prosecution of Nathan Hall in a fatal skiing collision case that set a nationwide precedent, and the prosecution of Chuck Garrison, convicted of second-degree murder in the death of his wife, Sharon.
Goodbee said he’s followed initial media reports of the Bryant case and believes Hurlbert is doing a good job. The examination of Hurlbert’s professional conduct is likely to only deepen, however, as attorneys representing Bryant have already accused authorities of unfair treatment.
One of the attorneys on Bryant’s team, Pamela Mackey, has plenty of experience with high-profile clients. Mackey has represented former Colorado Avalanche goaltender Patrick Roy in a domestic case and Jeane Newmaker, the mother prosecuted for the April 2000 “rebirthing” therapy death of her daughter. Mackey also represents Robert Wills in the civil case filed against him over the Breckenridge skiing death this year.
Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or email@example.com.
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