LOS ANGELES (CNS) - As a visibly upset Vanessa Bryant sat nearby, a Los Angeles jury Wednesday heard horrific details of gruesome injuries suffered by victims of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, Lakers star Kobe Bryant, their teenage daughter and seven others.
Los Angeles County's response to that accident is the central issue being litigated in the trial of the widow's federal civil lawsuit over graphic photos taken by first responders at the scene of the crash. Bryant's suit against the county has been combined with that of Orange County financial adviser Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the tragedy and makes many of the same allegations.
Both Bryant and Chester contend they suffered emotional distress when county sheriff's and fire personnel snapped and allegedly shared photos of the crash scene with other law enforcement officials needlessly and with members of the public. Along with the Lakers standout, the nine victims included Chester's wife, Sarah, the couple's 13-year-old daughter, Payton, and the Bryants' 13- year-old daughter, Gianna, known as Gigi.
In his opening statement, Bryant's attorney, Luis Li, said that after the Jan. 26, 2020, accident, the widow "had one wish -- and one wish only -- to protect (her loved ones') bodies, to protect their privacy."
The attorney said on the day of the accident, Bryant met with L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva at the sheriff's station in Calabasas, and asked the law enforcement official to ensure that nobody would be allowed to take pictures of the victims. The sheriff promised that no pictures would be taken, Li said.
"She never imagined that officers would do the exact opposite," Li said. "The county did not cause the helicopter crash. But county employees took pictures as souvenirs. ... The bodies of the loved ones should have been protected. But that's not what happened."
The plaintiffs "were betrayed by the county," he continued, alleging that county fire and sheriff's personnel "walked around the wreckage and took pictures ... of broken bodies (and) close-ups of limbs and burnt flesh."
As the attorney introduced the widow and Chester to the jury panel, a picture of Kobe Bryant hugging his daughter at a sporting event was shown to the jury on large screens.
In her opening statement, Mira Hashmall, lead outside counsel for Los Angeles County in the litigation, countered that first responders correctly documented the crash scene while it was still light in the remote mountainous region near Calabasas.
"They responded, they contained that scene, they stayed there day and night," Hashmall told the panel, adding that while the county sympathizes with the "unspeakable loss" suffered by the Bryant and Chester families, the case is about whether the county publicly disseminated crash site photos in violation of the plaintiffs' constitutional rights.
"They have no evidence that the photos have gotten to the public," she said, insisting that the county has successfully worked to prevent its crash site photos from entering the public domain.
Bryant and Chester allege that at least 11 sheriff's personnel and a dozen firefighters shared the photos within 24 hours of the crash. In the following weeks, one sheriff's deputy showed graphic photos on his cell phone at a Norwalk bar, another texted photos to a group of video game buddies, and county fire personnel displayed photos at an awards gala, plaintiffs contend.
Hashmall promised jurors that the deputy, a rookie at the time, will testify that he had a lapse in judgment when he showed the photos to his bartender friend, a scene that is captured on the bar's surveillance video. The deputy "regrets it every day," the attorney said.
She also strongly denied the allegation that there's a custom or practice of photos taken by the county for no reason at death scenes. "There's no prior incidence of this," Hashmall said. "We scoured the records -- this is an unprecedented incident (and) we responded."
On Wednesday morning, the judge impaneled 10 jurors, which includes an extra four panelists in case there are any dropouts for medical or other reasons. The trial is expected to last nine days.
A list of prospective witnesses includes Bryant and Villanueva, who testified in a deposition last year that he directed deputies to get rid of any crash scene photos they had on their phones, as part of his promise to Bryant on the day of the crash.
County attorneys maintain that the photos were never publicly disseminated and have all been deleted from the cell phones used to take them. The defense says an investigation by the Internal Affairs Bureau of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department confirms that all of the photos have been destroyed.
Bryant sued the county in September 2020, followed by Chester's filing two months later.
Chester's attorney, Jerry Jackson, gave details of the gruesome injuries suffered by his client's wife and daughter. The courtroom in downtown Los Angeles was silent as Chester and Bryant both wept.
"Why would anyone stand over the bodies and take extreme close- ups?," Jackson said. He told the jury that once images have been digitized, they can appear on the internet at any time, and Chester "is going to have to wrestle with that fear for the rest of his life."
The county asserts that it will be proven to the jury that no photos taken by personnel at the scene of the hillside crash were ever shared with the public, that they no longer exist and the plaintiffs have never seen them.
A federal cause of action in which plaintiffs allege that county personnel's taking and dissemination of photos violated their constitutional rights to control the remains and death images of their deceased loved ones will also be litigated. Walter said he hadn't decided whether to address state law claims.
California legislation growing out of Bryant's allegations passed two years ago, making it illegal for peace officers and other first responders to take unauthorized photographs of dead people at the scene of a crime or accident.
The trial resumes Thursday morning.