Eds: Note Oregon angle in graf 12.

Updated: August 8, 2003, 4:38 AM ET

EAGLE, Colo. -- The woman stood uneasily at a courtroom podium, facing up to 10 years in jail for a car accident that left two people dead.

Eagle County Judge Frederick Gannett sentenced her to one year of probation, warned her to drive carefully and offered his condolences.

"It does not appear that putting you in jail for what appears to be a moment of inattention would serve the public," he said, speaking slowly so a Spanish interpreter could keep pace.

It was a show of compassion lawyers say is typical of Gannett, who will be under heavy scrutiny as he handles the Oct. 9 preliminary hearing in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case.

Wearing sport sandals and golf vests beneath his black robe, Gannett (pronounced GANN-it) is a bit of a maverick. He has chatted with reporters outside the courthouse, eavesdropped on logistics meetings and even helped rearrange the courtroom furniture.

"Of all the cases that he's ever handled, and I've handled numerous cases in front of him, I never walked away and said, `Gee, he's been unfair," Edwards attorney Jim Fahrenholtz said. "If you're wrong he tells you, and if you're right he tells you. He's a real straight player and has a real fair sense of justice."

Pictures of Gannett, with his tousled mane of dark hair, have been splashed across televisions and newspapers around the world. He seems bemused by the attention the case has received: A seven-minute hearing Wednesday drew hundreds of reporters, photographers and fans.

He told reporters outside that the character of the case "is one of an extraordinary flurry of paper."

Bryant, 24, was charged after a 19-year-old woman accused him of assaulting her June 30 at the resort lodge where she worked in nearby Edwards. He has said the sex was consensual.

Gannett will handle the case through the preliminary hearing. If it proceeds to state district court for trial, a new judge will be appointed.

Gannett, 49, declined to be interviewed for this article, saying more attention should be paid to the effect the Bryant case was having on the area.

Born in 1953, Gannett earned his law degree at Oregon's Willamette University in the mid-1980s. He is married but has no children.

An avid reader and golfer who travels overseas frequently, Gannett helped build his log home in Basalt, showing up in court with black-and-blue fingernails, Fahrenholtz recalled.

His resume includes stints as a sheriff's deputy, private lawyer and municipal judge in Basalt and Vail.

"I think primarily the reason Fred left the bench the first time was because he felt he was becoming hardened to the realities of the human element that was in front of him, and didn't want to do his job that way," former District Attorney Mike Goodbee said.

Since the charge against Bryant was filed July 18, Gannett has made efforts to ensure public access, permitting live cameras and reserving seats for reporters.

He was criticized by some First Amendment experts when he threatened to evict reporters from the courtroom if their organizations published the accuser's name or image against court order.

And he refused to excuse the NBA star from the initial hearing, saying he thought Bryant's appearance was vital.

"It's not a show. It's not for this event or for this audience. That's really how Fred is," Goodbee said.

"He will take his duty seriously and be fair to both sides."


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