Jury selection in Kobe Bryant sexual assault case to continue behind closed doors

Monday, August 30th 2004, 6:27 am
By: News On 6

EAGLE, Colo. (AP) _ Attorneys in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case resumed closed-door questioning of prospective jurors Tuesday, seeking out their attitudes about race, experiences with sexual assault and any effect pretrial publicity has had on them.

On a clear, crisp day in this mountain town, people arrived at the courthouse singly and in small groups, some carrying pink sheets of paper signifying their status as potential jurors. The first round of questioning on Monday took nearly 10 hours.

District Judge Terry Ruckriegle rejected a media request for access Monday, saying he wanted candidates to feel they could answer questions about potentially embarrassing topics without scrutiny by the press.

Ruckriegle also said Bryant's right to a fair trial and the potential jurors' right to privacy outweigh ``qualified'' First Amendment rights of access.

Bryant, 26, has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault, saying he had consensual sex with a then-19-year-old employee at a Vail-area resort where he stayed last summer. If convicted, the Los Angeles Lakers star faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000.

Before the questioning began, potential jurors filled out an 82-item questionnaire asking them their feelings about interracial relationships, whether they have had ``any negative experience with an African American'' and whether they are biased against mental health professionals, among other things.

Trial consultant Howard Varinsky of Varinsky Associates said he believes the defense is particularly concerned with people's feelings on whether a defendant must prove he is innocent or whether he should be required to testify.

Prosecutors, he said, will be wary of people who have had negative experiences with law enforcement or the court system.

``Both sides are looking for who to kick,'' he said.

In fact, the questionnaire probably does not provide an accurate glimpse of arguments that will come up at trial, said Richard Gabriel, a Los Angeles-based trial consultant with Decision Analysis.

``It probably has more to do with what one side anticipates the other side's themes and issues are going to be and wanting to clearly find out if people are going to be amenable to it,'' he said.

Also Monday, Denver television station KCNC released some details of the sealed, 150-person witness list. The station reported it included the alleged victim and her parents, along with some of her acquaintances from Eagle and from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley where she was a student until fall 2003.

Also on the list, the station said, were people from Calgary, Alberta, where the supermarket tabloid Globe published what it said were pictures of the alleged victim celebrating in a bar a few months after the alleged attack.

Attorney John Clune, who represents the accuser, criticized the leak, one of several in the case so far.

``On the eve of trial, we are once again reminded that no protections are assured and little efforts are made to correct the evident flaws that have defined this case,'' Clune said.

Ruckriegle said private questioning will be limited to topics including potential jurors' personal experience with sexual assault, any potential racial prejudice they harbor, whether pretrial publicity has prompted them to form an opinion on Bryant's guilt or innocence, and any familiarity they may have with the alleged victim.

In all, the jury pool includes 276 Eagle County residents _ 205 of whom filled out questionnaires Friday and were called back for more questioning this week after attorneys reviewed the answers over the weekend and eliminated about one-third of the original pool of 300. Seventy-one more potential jurors filled out questionnaires Monday.

Jury selection will be private until at least Wednesday, when reporters will be able to watch and listen through closed-circuit television. By then, the jury pool will likely have been whittled considerably. Opening statements are expected Sept. 7.