Process of elimination begins Friday

Updated: August 24, 2004, 6:41 PM ET
Associated Press

DENVER -- Residents of Eagle County are a diverse lot -- 23 percent Hispanic, 0.3 percent black. Forty-three percent of them are college graduates. And attorneys in the Kobe Bryant rape case would love to know what some of them are thinking right now.

Summonses went out last month ordering 999 potential jurors from the county to show up for duty this Friday, with opening statements not expected until Sept. 7.

So, how to find an impartial jury in a case that has been in the news for more than a year and included headlines about the accuser's sex life and Bryant's hospital exam?

Jury consultant Joseph Rice of the Jury Research Institute in Walnut Creek, Calif., said some jurors may be so turned off by the tawdry details they won't know who to blame and may try to apply their own values to the case. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will try to eliminate those candidates before the trial begins.

"Some may want to blame Kobe and say it must be rape because a normal person wouldn't do this," Rice said. "Others might say 'Look at her, she asked for it.' This trial has layers upon layer of issues."

If convicted of felony sexual assault, Bryant, 26, faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation, and a fine up to $750,000. The Los Angeles Lakers star has said he had consensual sex with the woman, then 19, at a Vail-area resort last year.

Eagle County residents mirror the nation in some respects: The population is 74.2 percent white, just ahead of the national figure of 69.1 percent, and it is 45.2 percent female (50.9 percent nationally).

But they are better educated than the general public (only 24.4 percent of the U.S. population holds at least a bachelor's degree) and the county's median household income is nearly $62,700 ($42,000 nationally). They have a median age of 31.

Idgi D'Andrea, a jury consultant for Bonora D'Andrea of San Francisco, said recent missteps in the case may force the judge to allow more questioning of potential jurors.

Among the mistakes: Courthouse staff have twice posted the accuser's name on a state courts Web site and the judge lost a battle with the media and released nearly 200 pages of documents from a closed hearing on the woman's sexual activities.

"It's really hard to unring the bell, once that bell has been rung, and ask people to forget what they've heard," D'Andrea said.

Both sides are expected to see if potential jurors are prejudiced because Bryant is black and his accuser is white and whether they believe a rich basketball player thought he didn't have to play by the rules.

Rice said attorneys are wary about putting women on a rape case jury because they can be hard on their own gender. He said women are quick to blame the accuser and look for faults, from their dress to their behavior.

"Female jurors can be the worst for women," Rice said.

Rape trials are especially difficult to handicap because they combine sex and violence, two hot-button issues attorneys can use to stir emotions.

Prosecutors are looking for jurors who are sympathetic to the accuser, who possibly feel vulnerable themselves and rely on and trust the legal system to take care of them, consultants say.

Defense attorneys want jurors who are willing to believe women have lied about getting raped and got away with it.

"They want someone who is suspicious about the system, who think womens' rights have gotten to the point where they can scream fire and everyone believes it," Rice said.

Attorneys will also be on the lookout for jury candidates who might be seeking their 15 minutes of fame. Consultants call these candidates "stealth jurors," people who will give up weeks of their lives or be sequestered from their families to hear a case.

Jon Stavney, the mayor in the accuser's hometown of Eagle, said Monday that residents in the area are not fazed by celebrity status.

"We're more used to millionaires and celebrities than a lot of places," he said. "I don't think people in Eagle County have been obsessed with this trial. ... We'll be glad when this is over."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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