Vanessa Bryant’s attorney argues photos of Kobe Bryant’s remains shared ‘for a laugh’

LOS ANGELES — An institutional “culture of callousness” prompted Los Angeles County legislators and firefighters to snap and share photos of the remains of Kobe Bryant and other victims of the 2020 helicopter crash in which the Lakers star, his 13-year-old daughter, died and seven others, a lawyer for Bryant’s widow told a jury on Wednesday.

Vanessa Bryant’s attorney Luis Li told jurors in his opening statement in U.S. District Court in her county privacy invasion trial that cellphone photos taken by a deputy and a firefighter at the scene of the accident were “visual gossip” and had none official purpose.

“They were shared by lawmakers playing video games,” Li said. “They were repeatedly shared with people who had absolutely no reason to receive them.”

A county attorney defended taking the photos as an essential tool for first responders wanting to share information when they thought they could still save lives at the chaotic, dangerous and difficult-to-access accident site in the Calabasas Hills west of Los Angeles

“Photography at the scene is essential,” District Attorney J. Mira Hashmall said.

Vanessa Bryant often cried during her attorney’s presentation. She was still wiping tears from her eyes during a break minutes later.

Li told jurors that learning the distribution of the photos a month after the crash, not from the county but from the Los Angeles Times, aggravated her still dire affliction.

“January 26, 2020 was the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life. The county made it much worse,” Li said. “They poured salt into an open wound and rubbed it in.”

Li played the jury’s security video, which shows an off-duty deputy drinking in a bar, and shows the photos to the bartender, who shakes his head in dismay. The lawyer then showed a picture of the men later laughing together. Li described firefighters looking at the phone photos at an awards banquet two weeks later, and showed the jury an animated graph documenting its spread to nearly 30 people.

Li said the county failed to conduct a thorough investigation to ensure every copy of the photos was accounted for, and that Vanessa Bryant was pursuing it for fear the photos would one day surface — and her surviving children might see them online become by what they have done forever.”

During the defense’s opening statement, Hashmall told jurors that the fact that the pictures had not appeared for more than two years showed that sheriff’s and fire department executives had done their job.

“You are not online. You are not in the media. They have never been seen by the plaintiffs themselves,” Hashmall said.

“It’s no coincidence. It depends on how diligent they were.”

Sheriff Alex Villanueva and department officials immediately brought everyone involved and ordered them to delete the photos rather than conduct a lengthy official investigation that could further harm the families, she said.

“He chose what he saw as the only option: decisive action,” Hashmall said. “He had the feeling that every second counts.”

Hashmall told the jury that the reason Li even had the bartender’s video on display, which she claimed was deceptively edited to show the men laughing together, was because the sheriff’s department released it on the same day day they received a complaint from another bar patron who witnessed the photo sharing.

She said the deputy was struggling emotionally with the difficulty of dealing with the accident scene and the bartender is a longtime friend who he trusts.

“He pulled out his phone, and that shouldn’t have happened,” she said. “In one slip, in a moment of weakness, he showed these photos and he regretted it every day of his life.”

The defense attorney urged the jury to look past the heartache of those who filed the lawsuit and focus on the matter before them.

“There is no doubt that these families have suffered,” she said. “It’s unspeakable. But in this case it’s not about the loss in the crash. It’s about the pictures.”

Chris Chester, whose wife Sara and daughter Payton also died in the crash, is another plaintiff in the lawsuit, which is seeking unspecified millions.

The county has already agreed to pay $2.5 million to resolve a similar case brought by two families whose relatives died in the Jan. 26, 2020 crash. Bryant and Chester declined to settle.

Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and other parents and players were flying to a girls’ basketball tournament when their chartered helicopter crashed in the fog. Federal security officials blamed pilot error for the wreck. Vanessa Bryant’s attorney argues photos of Kobe Bryant’s remains shared ‘for a laugh’

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