Hearing Will Focus on Trial Rules, Key Dates

Times Staff Writer

A quirk in Eagle County judicial procedures could result in Kobe Bryant's appearance in District Court today being little more than a get-acquainted session with Judge Terry Ruckriegle, where ground rules are established and key dates are set.

In most other Colorado counties, a defendant's first District Court appearance is an arraignment, and a trial date is set if a not-guilty plea is entered. However, in Eagle County, the first appearance often is merely an advisement of the charges.

Bryant, who is charged with felony sexual assault, can ask that the first appearance and arraignment be held jointly, but his attorneys have not requested that in writing. Combining the two hearings would be done primarily for convenience, enabling the Laker star to make one less trip to Eagle and one less court appearance.

Whether or not an arraignment is held today, legal analysts expect Ruckriegle to establish deadlines for the filing of motions by the defense and prosecution, and for responses to those motions. He also could set a date for the beginning of motion hearings, which are likely to address the admissibility of evidence and perhaps a change of venue.

"Given the court's docket and everyone else's calendar, it might make sense to set some dates," said Karen Steinhauser, a University of Denver law professor. "Motion hearings in this case will be substantial and could take a week or more to complete."

Experts say that the hearings are expected to take place in about three months.

Eagle County lawyers say that Ruckriegle, the presiding judge since the case was bound over to District Court after the Oct. 15 preliminary hearing, is known to prefer delaying arraignments until after motion hearings because a more realistic trial date can be set the longer he waits. Eagle County Dist. Atty. Mark Hurlbert expects the judge to do the same in this case.

"So much can change during the motions hearings," said Krista Flannigan, Hurlbert's spokeswoman. "Sometimes cases are dismissed based on the outcome. A lot of stuff can happen."

Bryant, 25, is accused of raping a 19-year-old Eagle woman June 30 at a mountain resort where he was a guest and she was an employee. He says they had consensual sex.

Defense motions are expected to include arguing that evidence pertaining to the accuser's sexual history in the days surrounding her encounter with Bryant and her mental state be admissible.

As a possible prelude to a change of venue request, the defense team has commissioned two telephone polls of Eagle County residents, using the Boulder-based firm of Talmey/Drake to gauge opinions about the case from potential jury members.

The first poll was conducted in August. The second was done recently and asked residents whether their opinions had changed since the preliminary hearing -- widely considered a strong showing by the defense.

"The judge is looking at a trial filled with motions, and that is why I believe he will hold off on the arraignment," said Larry Pozner, a Denver defense attorney who has followed the case closely. "It is not because the defendant is Kobe Bryant. It doesn't favor either side. It is just good docket management."

A trial date is set within six months of an arraignment under Colorado's speedy trial law, although the defense can waive that right. The speedy trial stipulation is another reason Ruckriegle might wait on the arraignment until after motion hearings -- doing so delays triggering the six-month deadline.

Analysts believe that by not asking for an arraignment today, Bryant's attorneys could be signaling that they do not wish to hurry a trial. The NBA playoffs conclude in June and most experts believe a trial could be delayed until after the season.

However, the person whose wishes carry the most weight will be Ruckriegle.

"Everything I hear about him is that he is assertive," said Lisa Wayne, a Denver defense attorney. "He will give an indication to everyone in the courtroom that he is in charge. He will say, 'This is how it is going to be.' "

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