Jury lines up for Kobe Bryant rape trial

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The Independent US

More than a year after allegations of rape levelled at basketball star Kobe Bryant shocked the world of sport and set in motion a circus of claim and counterclaim, the first wave of jury selection began yesterday.

More than a year after allegations of rape levelled at basketball star Kobe Bryant shocked the world of sport and set in motion a circus of claim and counterclaim, the first wave of jury selection began yesterday.

Around 500 local residents from Eagle, Colorado, had been asked to make their way to the county courthouse to fill out 82-item questionnaires as defence and prosecution lawyers seek to create a jury they believe will be sympathetic to their arguments.

Mr Bryant, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, has pleaded not guilty to accusations of rape made in June 2003 by a then 19-year-old employee of a local hotel. He admits he had intercourse with the woman but says that it was consensual. If convicted Mr Bryant, 26, could face life imprisonment.

In recent weeks, much of the behind-the-scenes legal manoeuvring has involved claims by a defence expert that the plaintiff had intercourse with someone else after having sex with Mr Bryant. The defence intends to use this evidence to demolish the prosecution's claim that the woman had been traumatised by her encounter with the married sports star.

This week, just two days before the jury selection process was timetabled to begin, the prosecution stepped up the pressure, alleging that the DNA evidence had been contaminated and that the defence had possibly manipulated data.

Last month, the judge, Terry Ruckriegle, ruled that details about the alleged victim's sexual behaviour in the 72 hours before her encounter with Mr Bryant was relevant to the case. Campaigners said the judge's decision directly overturns the protections of the rape shield laws, introduced in the 1970s to prevent excessive scrutiny of a victim's personal life.

During a brief hearing on Thursday, the judge chastised the prosecution for making allegations about evidence tampering so late in proceedings.

Prosecutor Dana Easter told Judge Ruckriegle that she only recently obtained the DNA test results from laboratories hired by Mr Bryant's attorneys because the defence team had been dragging its feet.

"We have acted as well as we can," she said. "The prosecution has not had $12m (£6.7m) to pay for experts."

Hal Haddon, for the defence, hit back, saying the prosecution was trying to inflame public opinion as the trial started.

"These motions are humbugs designed to distract us from trial preparation, designed to generate cheap headlines, and most of all designed to confuse the jury," he said.

Ever since Mr Bryant was accused of rape last summer, the legal process has been mired with controversy and muckraking. The identity of the alleged victim, who worked at the Lodge and Spa Hotel in Cordillera, is well-known locally and within the media - and indeed, to anyone with access to the internet.

Jury questioning is expected to commence behind closed doors on Monday. Attorneys for news organisations have asked the judge to open these sessions, but he has yet to rule on the matter. The media attorney, Christopher Beall, said the First Amendment requires courts to open jury selection procedures to the public.

Of the 999 jury summonses mailed out this month, 165 could not be delivered and 150 people were excused primarily because they are no longer county residents or US citizens.

Determining what questions to ask is a crucial part of a process, in which both sides will jockey to seat jurors they believe are sympathetic to their arguments. To do that, attorneys will have to quickly learn a wide variety of details about people who might be uncomfortable in providing them, said a trial consultant, Beth Bonora.

"You need to understand more than surface things about someone," she said. "Decision-making based on demographics alone is futile. People are more complicated than that."

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