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Vanessa Bryant Cries in Court on First Day of Trial Against LA County Sheriffs, Firefighters

Vanessa Bryant, widow of legendary NBA player Kobe Bryant, began crying in the courtroom during the first day of her trial against the Los Angeles County deputies and firefighters who shared photos of Kobe’s dead body with their colleagues, friends and family members.

According to a report that aired on CBS Los Angeles, Vanessa was overcome with emotion when her lawyer began addressing the jury during opening statements while nearby screens displayed photos of Kobe and their 13-year-old daughter Gianna. Both Kobe and Gianna died in the crash, along with seven other passengers, including pilot Ara Zobayan.

The CBS report also reveals what Vanessa’s legal team is burdened with proving their case against LA County. Overall, the jury is being asked to consider three major points throughout the case:

  1. LA County deputies and firefighters captured and stored the images for reasons that were not legitimate or pertaining to the case.
  2. Employees of LA County destroyed evidence involved with the case, making it impossible for investigators to know how widespread the dissemination of the leaked photos really is.
  3. LA County neglected and ultimately failed to contain the leaks.

In his opening statements, Vanessa’s lawyer Luis Li addressed the jury, communicating the extent to which Vanessa’s life has been destroyed not only because of the death of her husband and child but because of the first responders who went against protocol and took photos of the victims that had nothing to do with their investigation.

“County employees exploited the accident,” Li said. “They took and shared pictures of Kobe and Gianna as souvenirs… They poured salt in an unhealable wound,” reports Rolling Stone.

Li also revealed a video of Deputy Joey Cruz sitting at Baja California Bar & Grill, showing some of the pictures to a bartender, who was physically uncomfortable with what he was being shown. Vanessa’s lawsuit also claims that the deputy showed the photos to his niece.

Li continued, singling out first responders who “walked around the wreckage and took pictures of broken bodies from the helicopter crash. They took close-ups of limbs, of burnt flesh. It shocks the conscience.” He even cited an audio clip of one of the detectives assigned to the case talking about his wife, who refused to look at the photos after he described them as “piles of meat.”

Vanessa, who filed the lawsuit nearly eight months after her husband and daughter’s deaths on Jan. 26, 2020, is claiming severe emotional distress as a result of the leaks, and insists that the first responders involved with the lawsuit took the photos “for their own personal gratification.”

Her initial filings also allege, “The gratuitous images soon became talked about within the department, as deputies displayed them to colleagues in settings that had nothing to do with investigating the accident. One deputy even used his photos of the victims to try to impress a woman at a bar, bragging about how he had been at the crash site.”

According to CBS Sports, the response from LA County has consisted mostly of attempts to shift blame wherever possible. For example, LA County officials have characterized Vanessa’s emotional distress as a result of the crash itself and not the photos that were distributed by first responders. The county then ordered a psychological evaluation to uncover the root of Vanessa’s distress.

The county also asserts that, because the photos were never technically leaked to the public, Vanessa’s case is on shaky ground from a legal perspective. The Rolling Stone report quotes LA County’s lawyers as saying, “It is undisputed that the complained-of photos have never been in the media, on the Internet, or otherwise publicly disseminated. Plaintiff Vanessa Bryant has never seen county photos of her family members.”

However, Vanessa’s lawsuit alleges that one California officer posted the pictures to social media. Within a few days, more than 10 officers in the LAPD had seen the images. Another officer has been accused of taking anywhere from 25 to 100 photos at the crash site. Deputy Michael Russell is accused of having sent some of the photos to a friend.

LA County disagrees. County lawyer Mira Hashmall claims that Deputy Cruz was new to the job and reportedly regrets his actions. She added that distributing the images without the family’s consent was not a violation of their constitutional rights.

In a statement, Hashmall said, “The county continues to express its deepest sympathies for the families that suffered this terrible loss. The county has also worked tirelessly for two and half years to make sure its site photos of the crash were never publicly disseminated. The evidence shows they never were. And that is fact, not speculation.”

Whether there’s any truth to that claim, an LA Times report confirms that the LAPD officers involved with the case would face no disciplinary action if they deleted the photos. Additionally, there are reports that the sheriff’s office attempted to contain the situation for at least five weeks after the deadly crash.

Vanessa’s lawsuit against LA County first responders is just one in a string of filings against multiple parties involved with the accident, including the company that offers chartered helicopter services, as well as the estate of deceased pilot Zobayan, following a decision from five board members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who confirmed that Zobayan’s flight in dense fog violated federal regulations.

TMZ reports that California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Kobe Bryant Act into law two years ago, prohibiting first responders from sharing crime scene photos with individuals who are not involved with the case. The Kobe Bryant Act imposes a $1,000 fine on any first responders who break the recently passed law.

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