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Sept. 2, 2004 - Los Angeles Sentinel

Is Kobe Bryant the O.J. of the Decade?

By DENNIS FREEMAN
Sentinel Staff Writer

Kobe Bryant's upcoming sexual assault trial could drive a deeper wedge into an already deteriorating relationship between African Americans and white America. The national media has already dropped the race card on the general public, making comparisons of Bryant's trial to the infamous O.J. Simpson criminal trial nearly a decade ago.
     Like Simpson, Bryant is black. Like Simpson, the individual Bryant is accused of victimizing is a white woman. And like Simpson was, Bryant is wildly popular and internationally beloved.
     The parallel of the two cases would seem to end there. But it doesn't. Simpson, a Hall of Fame pro football running back, was retired and enjoying celebrity status as an actor when he was accused of brutally killing his ex-wife and a friend. He was later acquitted, but now lives his life in a vacuum as a recluse. Bryant, charged with raping a young white woman, however, is at the peak of career. A conviction, if he is found guilty, could give Bryant life in prison. If Bryant is found guilty of raping the woman, there will be no multi-million dollar contracts, no more endorsements, no more quests for greatness on the basketball court, and no more freedom for the married father.
     The common thread that weaves both Bryant and Simpson together is the race factor. When Simpson was acquitted of the double murders, a mostly-black jury found him innocent of the crimes. Bryant will stand face-to-face with 12 jurors that in all likelihood won't have a single African American sitting in the jury box. Because of the racial overtones already attached to the case, the implications of the verdict, when it is read, will have a broad affect on a lot of people.
     Black America will be watching. White America will be watching, and so will a lot of other folks. And like the Simpson criminal trial, lines will be drawn with the assumption that tension and racial division will split America once again.
     And once again, the jury will be at the center of attention. Prospective jurors have already been the focus of unwanted attention because of the possibility of African Americans being left out of the jury process. Blacks constitute just a fraction of the population in Eagle County.
     So, when Bryant stand trial on Tuesday, which is the tentative date for opening statements to begin, to answer to allegations that he raped this woman at a Colorado resort, the Los Angeles Lakers' superstar faces the strong possibility of not being judged by a jury of his peers.
     Instead, Bryant will probably have his road to freedom determined by a jury that looks more like his accuser than himself. That may not be a good thing for Bryant considering the race card in this case has been simmering for over a year, and is now starting to reach a boiling point.
     The fact that his criminal trial is literally in the backyard of his accuser, located in Eagle County, a town whose racial makeup consists of a little more than 100 African Americans (0.3 percent) among its 31,000 plus population, could work against Bryant.
     So, after weeks, even months of posturing by both the defense team and the prosecution, Bryant's fate of freedom or spending time behind bars, will rest on the shoulders of 12 jurors. Once they get by the screening process, in which 999 potential jurors were sent summons, the individuals chosen to participate in the trial, will be asked to render a decision that will either convict Bryant or exonerate him. Nearly three-fourths of the jury will have already made up their minds of the guilt or innocence after opening statements have been made, said jury consultant Marshall Hennington.
     " History has shown some 70 percent of people make up their minds by the end of opening statements," Hennington said. "Opening statements are the most powerful influences in the case. Everyone has biases. Justice is subjective. The whole legal system is built on manipulation. It's really important that you have the right players on board."
     Bryant and his defense team hope they have the right players to play in the juror's box.
     Hennington, a leading jury consultant, and considered to be the only African American male clinical psychologist, who specializes in this field, said it may not be entirely up to the jurors to decide the outcome of the trial. Hennington, who has done jury consulting on many high-profile cases, such as the Sean "P. Diddy" Combs criminal trial, said a lot of work done by both the prosecutors and defense before the trial begins, usually shapes the outcome.
     Pre-trial research, gathering jury information, psychological profiling and assessment and strategic communication, are just some of the things to be considered in trying to win a case, Hennington said.
     " You've got lives at stake," Hennington said. "You've got millions at stake. Trials are too important to leave in the hands of jurors. A lot of times people don't play the game fairly. I help attorneys win cases. I help individuals win cases, and my firm does such a good job, we actually know the outcome of a case before the trial. We do a number of things that by the time of the trial we know the outcome of the case."
     But the jury will nevertheless have the final say. Overlooking racial and prejudicial attitudes will aid jurors in making "not guilty" or "guilty" a just and fair verdict. But to get to that conclusion, the 300 prospective jurors had to be screened and answer the racially themed questionnaire form to see if any racism might be detectable.
     Among the 82 questions that prospective jurors had to answer was how they felt about interracial relationships; whether they've had any negative experience with any African American; do African Americans deal with a great amount of discrimination, some discrimination, and what is your opinion of professional basketball players? Prospective jurors were also asked questions about sexual assault and their opinions on marital infidelity,
     Karen Lisko, senior litigation consultant for a Denver law firm, said in an article that appeared in the Denver Post, certain individuals could pose trouble for either side. Lisko said Bryant's defense have to dismiss "pro victim in cases," "pro-prosecution," "celebrity averse" and "racist."
     After Bryant's arrest last year, there was speculation that moving the trial to a bigger venue like Denver would have been more advantageous. Denver, which has well over 100,000 African Americans living in the city, could have been the ideal place for Bryant, in terms of prospective jurors.
     Despite the lopsided racial climate where whites make up 72.4 percent of Eagle County's population, Bryant's attorneys have decided to put their faith in the people. The outcome is going to be painful for one side and joy for the other, Hennington said.
     " There's going to be one winner and one loser," he said "There are a lot of issues involved in this case. You've got race, you've got women rights...there are a whole lot of variables. I think that a fair trial is only a fair trial if you win."
     Bryant, 26, is facing four years to life in prison, or 20 years of probation, if found guilty. He also faces paving a $750,000 fine. Bryant said he and the accuser had consensual sex.

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