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Hurlbert makes an appearance

EAGLE, Colo. -- Since stepping down from day-to-day
involvement in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case two months ago,
District Attorney Mark Hurlbert has still shown up at each court
hearing and signed some of the scathing briefs.

But the 35-year-old prosecutor was nowhere to be seen at the
courthouse Monday as his deputies began picking a jury -- perhaps
the most important step of the trial. Two of those prosecutors have
extensive experience in handling sex-crime cases, but legal experts
said his decision might hurt the case.

"I think that there were a lot of people left with the
impression because of the timing that his stepping back was a way
of trying to distance himself from a case that perhaps he didn't
totally believe in," former prosecutor Karen Steinhauser said.
"That is the perception which then plays into people's feelings
about the strength of the case, about whether it should have been
filed in the first place."

After the second round of questioning individual prospective
jurors behind closed doors, state courts spokeswoman Karen Salaz
said about 160 people had been through questioning, and many had
been told whether to return. About 40 more prospective jurors were
to be questioned individually Wednesday.

"We are exactly on track," Salaz said.

Hurlbert was in the courtroom Tuesday for a brief hearing on the
prosecution's concerns about questioning potential jurors in open
court later this week on any opinions they might have formed on
Bryant's guilt or innocence. Yet he sat with the public and
reporters behind the courtroom rail.

"It is my understanding that many jurors yesterday indicated
they had gleaned a lot of information not only from the press but
from folks around town," prosecutor Ingrid Bakke said as he looked
on. "It's information that won't come up at trial, but that is
very prejudicial to this case."

Bakke said those who indicate they have an opinion based on such
information should be asked about it only behind closed doors to
avoid influencing other potential jurors.

District Judge Terry Ruckriegle said he was aware of that
possibility, but was bound to conduct some questioning in open
court. Jurors are instructed to reach a verdict based only on
evidence presented in court, something the judge called "a
monumental task in this case."

Bryant, 26, has said he had consensual sex with a
then-19-year-old employee of a Vail-area resort where he stayed
last summer. If convicted of felony sexual assault, 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.

Open-court questioning of potential jurors was expected to begin
Thursday, and opening statements were expected Tuesday.

It was Hurlbert who filed the charge two weeks after getting the
case from the Eagle County Sheriff's Office. He did so after
consulting other Colorado prosecutors, and declared he would not
pursue the case unless he thought he could convict Bryant beyond a
reasonable doubt.

On June 30, the anniversary of the alleged rape, Hurlbert said
he would provide general oversight of the trial, but most
responsibilities would be left to chief deputy Gregg Crittenden and
deputies Ingrid Bakke and Dana Easter, who have extensive
experience prosecuting sex-crime cases.

"I have a duty to every citizen in the 5th Judicial District,
and if I maintain a high level of involvement in this case, I would
be neglecting that duty," Hurlbert said at the time. He declined a
request to be interviewed for this story.

The district sees about 12,000 criminal cases filed each year,
prosecution spokeswoman Krista Flannigan said. Hurlbert, a
Republican who was appointed to the job by the governor in late
2002 to fill a vacancy, faces Democrat Bruce Brown in the Nov. 2
election.

The case has been expensive for Hurlbert's office, which has an
annual budget of $2.1 million. Flannigan has said the state
attorney general's office is providing help while experts including
jury consultants are donating services or charging reduced rates.

Illustrating the prosecution's concern with money, Easter said
last week that prosecutors wanted to bring headphones to the
courtroom to help jurors hear the recording of Bryant's statement
to investigators. She asked for a quick ruling so prosecutors could
determine whether to spend the money, and the judge authorized use
of the headphones this week.

Easter also told the judge prosecutors had put off hiring
experts to evaluate the defense's DNA test results until they were
sure the information would be admitted as evidence.

"The prosecution has not had $12 million to pay for experts,"
she said.

Last year, Eagle County added $105,000 above its usual
contribution to help handle expenses in the case. This year, the
four counties have authorized additional contributions up to
$300,000 total for the case, Flannigan said.

"We haven't run into a situation where we haven't been able to
do something," she said. "Money always is a concern of ours, so
we're always looking at how to make the money go the farthest."