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Potential Bryant Jurors Questioned in Private

The judge in the NBA star's sexual assault trial queries two groups of candidates on sensitive subject matter.

August 31, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

EAGLE, Colo. — Two groups of prospective jurors in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case were questioned in private Monday after the judge ruled a fair trial could be compromised if the media were able to listen.

The process was delayed for nearly two hours while Judge Terry Ruckriegle heard a motion from media organizations to reduce the number of questions directed at potential jurors in closed court.

The judge ruled that, with rare exceptions, all but five questions would be answered in open court during the second round of jury selection this week. The media then left the courtroom and prospective jurors were asked the sensitive questions with only lawyers and Bryant present.

The original pool of 300 prospective jurors who filled out lengthy questionnaires Friday was whittled to 205 over the weekend by the prosecution and defense. Those potential jurors were divided into five groups of 41, and two of the groups reported Monday. Two more groups will report today, and the last is scheduled for Wednesday.

The questionnaire addressed opinions on a range of potentially divisive topics, including interracial relationships, infidelity, racial discrimination, the mental health profession, law enforcement and NBA players.

One question asked: "Do you have any opinions or knowledge of Kobe Bryant? If yes, please explain."

The jury pool could be expanded because 71 people who appeared Monday for jury duty in a civil trial were shifted to the Bryant case because a settlement had been reached. Those prospective jurors will be called if the first pool is exhausted without a jury being selected.

Bryant, 26, has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault stemming from an encounter with a 19-year-old woman on June 30, 2003, at a Colorado mountain resort. The Laker star, who was 24 at the time, said he had consensual sex.

The questions prospective jurors were asked in closed court pertained primarily to personal experience with sexual assault.

Steve Zansberg, a lawyer for 12 media organizations, including The Times, objected only to questions about pretrial publicity being asked in closed court.

"Openness increases honesty," Zansberg said.

Ruckriegle, the defense and prosecution worried that having prospective jurors disclose in open court what they had seen or heard about the case in newspapers and on television could prejudice other jury candidates.

"There is a very real danger that we will not be able to get a jury at all," prosecutor Dana Easter said. "If the press really reported what is going to happen to these jurors, I don't think we'd find anyone willing to serve."

Ruckriegle expressed concern that he would not get candid responses in open court. The judge also objected that the media were raising the issue on the morning jury questioning was to begin. Zansberg said the selection procedure was disclosed to the media only last week.

"This underscores the need for openness," Zansberg said. "When proceedings are open to the public, confusion is dispelled."

The open court phase of jury selection is expected to begin Thursday, with lawyers from both sides asking questions. Court spokeswoman Karen Salaz said Ruckriegle was hopeful that a jury could be selected Friday and that opening arguments could be heard Sept. 7.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Getting personal

What follows are five questions that prospective jurors in the Kobe Bryant sexual assault case are being asked in closed court this week. Any "yes" answer requires an explanation.

* Have you or anyone close to you, including a child, ever been the victim of any form of sexual assault? (This includes actual or attempted sexual assault or other unwanted sexual advance, including by a stranger, acquaintance or family member.)

* Have you, or anyone close to you, ever felt in danger of being sexually assaulted by another person, including a stranger, acquaintance or family member?

* This case involves charges of sexual assault. Is there any experience that you or anyone close to you has had that may affect your ability to serve fairly as a juror in a case such as this?

* Have you ever been afraid of or had any negative experience with an African American individual?

* Have you or anyone you know had any contact with [alleged victim's name], any member of her family, or any of her close friends?

In addition, Judge Terry Ruckriegle has the discretion to keep private jurors' answers regarding what they have read or heard about the case in the media.

Source: Eagle County (Colo.) District Court

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