County braces for courthouse swarm
Bryant is scheduled to make his first appearance in court at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Last week officials sorted out Issues that varied from where to park television broadcast vehicles to providing a comfortable space for an overflow crowd and ensuring adequate security in the courtroom.|Vail Daily/Ken Lawdermilk|
Like a troop of military strategists dealing with an invading army, local government and court officials are working out the logistics of Kobe Bryant’s appearance in court this week.
Administrators from Eagle County, the town of Eagle, and the court last week sorted out how to best accommodate the needs of the press swarm covering the case, and the needs of the regular, court-going public dealing with day-to-day business. Issues varied from where to park television broadcast vehicles to providing a comfortable space for an overflow crowd and ensuring adequate security in the courtroom.
Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star who ranks No. 3 among sports ad pitchmen in the country, is scheduled to make his first appearance in court at 4 p.m. Wednesday. He will hear the felony sexual assault charge against him, along with the range of penalties if he is found guilty – probation to life in prison.
“We’d like it to be organized, and make it safe and professional. We’re willing to assist,” said Eagle County Administrator Jack Ingstad.
Local officials got a taste of the challenges over the past two weeks. Television satellite vans filled the Eagle County Justice Center parking lot for weeks. Citizens conducting routine court business had to find places to park, then pick their way through a maze of power cords, cameras, and small tents set up on the courthouse lawn for television reporters.
Crowd noise in the Justice Center’s hallways filtered through into courtrooms.
“There was no room for people who need a restraining order or to file a small claims case. We’re still doing business there,” said Christine Yuhas, administrator for the 5th Judicial District.
Jackie Cooper, head clerk for Eagle County’s courts, said she’s worried that the court hallways could be filled with spectators when Bryant appears. Cooper said her office has fielded many calls from California residents who have expressed an interest in attending hearings.
Krista Flannigan, media spokeswoman for the District Attorney’s Office, said a controlled environment at the Aug. 6 bond appearance for Bryant will set a precedent for future court appearances.
An order by County Court Judge Fred Gannett last week spelled out restrictions on press coverage. The likely scenario will be “pool” coverage, meaning one television camera and one still camera will be allowed in the courtroom. The images will be made available to all of the media.
The court order also specifies that no interviews take place within the Justice Center building.
Citing safety and decorum issues, Terry Ruckriegle, head judge for the 5th Judicial District, said only as many people as can be seated will be allowed into the courtroom. The courtroom contains 68 seats.
Ruckriegle said he would not allow television satellite trucks in the courthouse parking lot. The county anticipates 20-25 television vehicles will show up for Aug. 6 hearing.
County officials are working out the details for handling the overflow crowd. Possible options include creating a temporary parking lot for television trucks on the vacant lot north of the Justice Center Annex (where the District Attorney’s Office is located).
Eagle Town Manager Willy Powell said on-street parking will be limited to the north side of Chambers Avenue to ensure there will be enough room for emergency vehicles to pass through.
“They’re going to be here. Let’s make it work,” said Powell.
County officials are proposing to put up a large tent somewhere on the Justice Center premises to accommodate the overflow crowd of press and public. Television monitors will be set up so that people can see what was happening in the courtroom. Ingstad said a spot would also be designated for the small tents television crews use for stand-up reports.
“If they tell us what they want, we will find a place for their tents and trucks,” said Ingstad.
Ruckriegle acknowledged the need to provide facilities and reasonable access for court business that attracts extensive media interest. Still, he stressed, there was a need to direct activity to specific areas.
“This is a control factor, rather than exclusion,” said Ruckriegle. He voiced concern about financial impacts on the county and the town.
As has happened with several other major cases, the county will require people entering the courtroom to pass through an airport-style metal detector. There will also be some control of vehicles entering the Justice Center parking lot.
Although it is not known whether Byrant will come to Eagle County via the regional airport in Gypsum, Ingstad said security will be stepped up a notch there.
Sheriff’s Capt. Ken Wilson pointed out that this is not the first time Eagle County has dealt with a court case that attracted high media interest. He cited several high-profile cases that have been tried in recent years at the Eagle courthouse, including last year’s Summit County resident Chuck Garrison’s murder trial; the Nathan Hall skier manslaughter case two years ago; and the trial of controversial former Georgetown Mayor Koleen Brooks on charges of false reporting.
“We’ve been dealing a lot with local news media. This national media is a whole different breed,” said Wilson.