Is Kobe captivating Eagle County?
The reaction was predictable at the recent Democratic National Convention when delegate Debbie Marquez mentioned she was from Eagle County. “They’d say, ‘Things must be crazy because of the Kobe Bryant case,'” she said. “I told them the locals really are not listening to every word. It seems like people all over the country know more details than we do.”Events in the last two weeks, however, have raised concern from nearly everyone involved — the judge, prosecution, defense and attorneys for the alleged victim — that the jury pool in the small mountain county has been irreparably tainted. Two blunders by court personnel, both after 999 summonses were mailed to prospective jurors in mid-July, resulted in evidence favorable to Bryant being inadvertently posted on the court’s Web site. John Clune and Lin Wood, personal attorneys for Bryant’s 20-year-old accuser, raised the issue of a fair trial last week when, in interviews on national television, they questioned whether the woman could get a fair trial and suggested that she might be better off seeking justice in civil court rather than in a criminal case. The defense responded by complaining to the court that such “inflammatory comments” created a danger of “prejudicing potential jurors” against Bryant. Within hours, Judge Terry Ruckriegle reacted by issuing an edict prohibiting anyone associated with the case from commenting before trial. Jury selection is scheduled to begin Aug. 27. Bound by that order, Clune and Wood fired back in a court filing released Monday, writing that the mistakenly released evidence had resulted in a “devastating, one-sided account” about their client’s sexual history and its relevance to the case. Yet in interviews with a cross section of locals last weekend, from rodeo-goers at the dusty county fairgrounds in Eagle to well-heeled nightclub patrons near Vail and Beaver Creek, there was this recurring theme: Many in this county of 46,000 are weary of the 13-month-old case and inattentive to its nuances. “People are either busy working two jobs or are having a good time living in the mountains,” said Jack Ingstad, the county administrator. “I’m confident they can still find an unbiased jury out of our population.” Locals are rarely seen anymore at pretrial hearings that have been held every few weeks since January. Even basketball fans simply wanting to catch a glimpse of Bryant coming and going at the courthouse have largely disappeared. “It’s become a routine, and it’s been a marathon,” said one Eagle County police officer. “That’s not a combination that holds people’s interest.” Damage controlBryant, 25, has pleaded not guilty to felony sexual assault, which his accuser alleges took place at a the Lodge and Spa at Cordillera where she worked and he was a guest on June 30, 2003. He says they had consensual sex. The Laker star faces four years to life in prison or 20 years to life on probation if convicted. Until the court’s recent errors, both sides appeared comfortable with the trial’s staying in Eagle County. But jury experts say the influence of intense media coverage can be subtle, and the celebrity-driven case is complicated because one-sided evidence was made public after jury summonses were issued. Residents who received summonses said there was no mention of the case and no warning about avoiding pretrial publicity. Prospective jurors were simply instructed to appear in front of Ruckriegle on Aug. 27. “The summonses get people talking again,” said Beth Bonora, a jury consultant at San Francisco-based Bonora D’Andrea. “It’s one thing when evidence comes out in the courtroom after juries have been instructed by the judge. There is a seriousness about the way jurors try to conduct themselves in a courtroom. “But it’s always a concern when there is hot and heavy publicity like this. You can’t un-ring the bell.”Transcripts from a closed hearing in June that addressed evidence about the accuser’s sex life were mistakenly e-mailed to a handful of news organizations. Under pressure from the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruckriegle published the contents Aug. 2 in a lightly edited form. Another mistake by court personnel July 28 resulted in the online posting of a sealed order by the judge that contained the last name of the accuser and previously undisclosed evidence helpful to Bryant. Although the information made public had all been deemed admissible evidence, the accuser’s attorneys say the jury pool has been poisoned. “What we have now is, on the eve of trial, this very damaging evidence that nobody is allowed to respond to,” Clune said. Rolling their eyesMany in Eagle County, however, responded with yawns. A group of parents at the county fair waiting while their children rode the Ferris wheel rolled their eyes when asked about the case. “Nobody cares,” one man said. Another in the group mentioned the DNA evidence he had read about in the newspaper — but referred to Ruckriegle as ”Rutledge” and Eagle County District Attorney Mark Hurlbert as “Hurlberger.”The local newspaper, the Vail Daily, has documented every twist and turn in the case — and occasionally made news itself. Bryant attorney Hal Haddon said last week that an attorney for the accuser has used the paper to “launch repeated, virulent attacks on the court and the defense.”He might have overstated the effect. The Vail Daily claims circulation of 20,000 in a county with about 35,000 adult residents. Because of an oddity in the county’s boundaries, the paper is not available to about 20 percent of its residents. The towns of El Jebel and Basalt as well as unincorporated areas near Carbondale are separated by mountains from the 30-mile Interstate 70 corridor that connects Vail and Eagle. The local newspapers in those areas, the Aspen Times and the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, are owned by Swift Newspapers, the same company that owns the Vail Daily. “Those readers are fairly insulated from the local coverage,” said Don Rogers, managing editor of the Vail Daily. “They get some in truncated form. Our sister papers are not nearly as fascinated by this case as we are.”vail colorado