82-item questionnaire released

Originally Published: August 30, 2004
ESPN.com news services

EAGLE, Colo. -- Racial prejudice. Star power and wealth. Trust in the judicial system and the media. Familiarity with rape.

All those topics are covered in an 82-item jury questionnaire released Monday as attorneys and the judge in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case went behind closed doors for one-on-one discussions with people who could end up deciding whether the NBA star is guilty of rape.

With jury selection under way, Kobe Bryant made his first appearance Monday at his sexual assault trial.

Individual questioning began after District Judge Terry Ruckriegle rejected a media request for access. The judge said he wanted candidates to feel they could answer questions about potentially embarrassing topics without scrutiny by the press.

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

Attorneys and the judge questioned prospective jurors individually for nearly 10 hours Monday. Court officials would not comment on their progress.

Bryant walked out of the Eagle County Courthouse at approximately 8:51 p.m. MT Monday night (10:51pm ET) -- nearly 13½ hours after he arrived in court.

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.

Among other things, the questionnaire asks candidates how they feel about interracial relationships, whether they have had "any negative experience with an African American" and whether they are biased against mental health professionals.

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.

Late Monday, Denver television station KCNC released some details of the sealed, 150-person witness list. The station reported it included the accuser and her parents and many 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, was Jeff Shapiro, who wrote a book about the case; and people from Calgary, Alberta, where the supermarket tabloid Globe published what it said were pictures of the accuser celebrating in a bar a few months after the encounter.

"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," said attorney John Clune, who represents the accuser.

Ruckriegle said private questioning will be limited, covering 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 accuser.

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.

Experts said the questionnaire was typical, both in length and topics covered, for a trial of a high-profile defendant.

Trial consultant Beth Bonora of Bonora D'Andrea said both sides are probably interested in learning about candidates' experience with sexual assault. She said it was appropriate to discuss those matters in private.

"You can't ask jurors to talk about really private things in front of a panel including the media," she said. "People will be offended and upset and that's not good for anyone in a case."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.