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Judge calling 1,000 for Kobe's jury pool

WashPost: One in every 25 county residents to get summons
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

From $6 million two-bedroom apartments at the edge of the ski run to $60,000 double-wide mobile homes on dusty mountain roads, the people of Eagle County, Colo., will be receiving official letters over the next few weeks ordering them to join the jury pool for the biggest legal confrontation in county history: the Kobe Bryant rape trial.

Court officials say they will summon 1,000 citizens of this economically diverse county -- about one in 25 adult residents -- in hopes of finding 12 jurors and a few alternates to decide the fate of the 25-year-old Los Angeles Lakers guard who faces one felony count of sexual assault. That is nearly five times the size of a normal Eagle County jury pool, but District Judge Terry Ruckriegle decided the huge mailing would be necessary to find enough locals who can be open-minded about a case that has been engulfed in media attention for the past 12 months.

"Most trials in this county, it's fairly easy to find jurors who have no knowledge of the circumstances or the people involved," said Bruce Carey of Edwards, a longtime member of the county's defense bar. "But there's nobody in Eagle -- heck, there's nobody in America -- who hasn't read or heard about Kobe and the woman who charged him with rape."

Those receiving a jury summons will be ordered to appear at Eagle's small courthouse on Aug. 27 to begin filling out questionnaires. Court officials expect that hundreds of them will be excused from service almost immediately, because of health or family problems or because of some connection to the case. Eventually, the judge will arrive at a pool of 100 or so potential jurors, who will then be questioned by defense lawyers and prosecutors before the final 12 are selected.

The trial that has overwhelmed this rural county high in the Rockies -- and has spawned a sprawling tent city for the media -- stems from an incident one year ago this week at the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, a luxury mountain hotel.

On June 30, 2003, Bryant checked into the hotel before a scheduled knee surgery the next day. He asked the desk clerk, a 19-year-old student from Eagle, to come to his room. The woman told police the next morning that she did not object when the National Basketball Association all-star hugged and kissed her. But then, she said, she wept and cried "No" as the 6-foot-6 athlete raped her.

Bryant, 25, initially told reporters in Los Angeles, "I wouldn't do anything like that." Subsequently, he said that he had sex with the woman but that it was consensual. He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he would face penalties ranging from 20 years of supervised probation to a prison term of four years to life.

Karen Salaz, spokeswoman for the Colorado state court system, said Ruckriegle hopes to have a jury seated by Labor Day -- six working days after the jury pool is required to appear -- with opening arguments to begin that week. But lawyers following the high-profile case say that schedule could be optimistic.

"It may be that they can seat a jury in one week," said Craig Silverman, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor in Denver. "But I have seen cases with a lot less firepower than this at the defense table where it took three or four weeks to pick a jury. We know that Team Kobe is going to use the best jury-selection experts they can find, and that tends to slow things down."

With his freedom, his athletic career and tens of millions of dollars in annual endorsement income on the line, Bryant has hired a team of defense lawyers from Denver and a phalanx of medical, psychological and forensic experts.

His accuser's mother complained to the judge that her daughter has been followed continuously by private investigators working for the defense since the incident was reported.

Criminal defendants who can afford to do so often hire jury-selection experts to research the backgrounds of potential jurors. Local lawyers say this process is underway in the Bryant case.

One element that affects jury selection in every Eagle County trial is the socioeconomic diversity of a jurisdiction that stretches from exclusive ski-resort communities to small ranching towns.

Vail, home of the biggest ski area in North America, is a village of 4,500 permanent residents that has 45 art galleries. Tickets for this summer's classical music festival in Vail run to $200 apiece, including cocktails.

In the county seat of Eagle, in contrast, where the pick-up trucks have bumper stickers reading, "My burglar alarm is a gun," the big summer attraction is the county rodeo, with tickets priced at $20 for a whole family.

"The accuser in this case is from Eagle, and there are going to be a lot of people in this county who will feel sympathy for her," said Tom Boyd, a reporter for one of the county's weekly newspapers. "But people who have retired to a million-dollar apartment right under the lift in Vail probably have a lot more in common with a Kobe Bryant."

But Eagle County is homogeneous when it comes to race. Blacks make up less than one half of 1 percent of the population.

Defense lawyers practicing here argue that race will not matter for Bryant. "I can tell you, in fact I can guarantee you from my own experience, that juries here are fair to black defendants," said Carey, the defense lawyer.