Hurlbert makes an appearance

Updated: August 31, 2004, 8:37 PM ET
Associated Press

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.

Kobe Bryant
Surrounded by his security team, Kobe Bryant leaves the Eagle County Justice Center for lunch on the third day of jury selection.

"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."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press