County's largest effort to seat jury

Updated: July 16, 2004, 9:25 PM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- Juror summonses for the Kobe Bryant trial are expected to start showing up in 999 mailboxes across Eagle County next week, the largest effort ever to seat a jury in an area home to million-dollar homeowners, professionals drawn by the mountain lifestyle and blue-collar workers who support the resort industry.

The previous record was 500 jurors for a slaying case in 2002. Court officials say the higher number is needed because of the amount of publicity surrounding the case and because so many residents move into and out of the county, where Vail and the Beaver Creek ski resorts are located.

Since Eagle County only has about 36,000 residents over 18, jury consultant David Graeven said he would be more worried about what community pressure jurors might be feeling rather than how much publicity about the case they've been exposed to.

"Most notorious cases take place in big metro areas," said Graeven of San Francisco-based Trial Behavior Consultants. "I'd like to know whether they're concerned with how the community is going to react to their decision. I would ask them 'What do you think most people think should happen?"'

However, while the population of the county is small, it's also relatively diverse and cosmopolitan. According to the U.S. Census, 23 percent of the population is Hispanic compared with 17 percent statewide. Forty-three percent of the population graduated from college, 10 percent more than the statewide average.

The black population, however, is much smaller than the state average: 0.3 percent compared with 3.8 percent.

"We're not the little, dusty intersection of two roads," David Lugert, a longtime federal prosecutor who is now a defense attorney in Eagle, said of the town where the courthouse is located.

Jury summonses are sent out to people based on vehicle and voting registration records, and because of that, Lugert said it's likely that many of the county's immigrants -- which includes Hispanics as well as people from Asia and Eastern Europe -- will not receive summonses. In other cases, those immigrants -- which help keep the area's resorts running -- usually make up about 10 percent of those responding to jury calls, he said.

Usually one-third to one-half of people summoned fail to report to court for jury duty. Even though the Bryant trial will likely take three or four weeks, jury consultant Howard Varinsky thinks a higher percentage are likely to want to play a role in such a high-profile case.

"This is their one chance in a lifetime to interact with a celebrity. They see jurors get interviewed and go on to write books," said Varinsky, who is based in Oakland, Calif.

Graeven and Varinsky point out that high interest in a case can lead to a potential problem for both prosecutors and defense attorneys: stealth jurors. Those are people who have formed an opinion about the case and try to disguise their prejudice so they can earn a seat on the jury and see justice done.

Lugert doesn't think the case will generate more interest among potential jurors than other cases. He also thinks jurors likely have a more down-to-earth view of the case.

"Juries in this county tend to be hardworking, rational people that tend to make rational decision and they expect people to tell them the truth," he said.

Bryant is accused of raping a woman, then 19, at the Vail-area resort where she worked last summer. He has said the sex was consensual and has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault.

Bryant faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine of up to $750,000 if convicted.

The trial will start Aug. 27 and, to narrow down the pool, potential jurors will be asked to fill out a 115-item questionnaire.

Court officials originally planned to send out 1,000 summonses but found out that would cost about $500 more than stopping at 999 summonses -- doubling the cost the mailing. That's because the computer that generates the summonses would have to reprogrammed to produce summonses in the four digits rather than just three digits, said Karen Salaz, spokeswoman for the state judicial department.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press