Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, gets her day in court over crash photos: What we know

Vanessa Bryant’s heavyweight legal battle against Los Angeles County is finally set to go to trial this week in downtown Los Angeles, setting off a public spectacle that is expected to tell all of the following tales of tragedy and drama:

►Bryant retelling how she learned of the deaths of her daughter Gianna and husband, Kobe, the NBA legend, after both died in a helicopter crash in January 2020.

►Witnesses describing graphic photos of dead bodies from the scene of the crash.

►L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva explaining why he suggested his deputies delete such photos in exchange for “amnesty.”

►Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka will even testify how Vanessa Bryant suffered after the crash.

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In the end, a jury will decide if the county is responsible for violating her rights and how much it should pay Bryant for her alleged emotional distress, if anything.

Vanessa Bryant, wife of the late Kobe Bryant.
Vanessa Bryant, wife of the late Kobe Bryant.

What is this case about?

Bryant sued the county in September 2020, accusing county sheriff’s and fire department employees of taking and sharing photos of her loved ones’ remains from the crash site without having a legitimate reason for doing so.

Her legal team stated in court documents that “close-up photos of Gianna and Kobe Bryant’s remains were passed around on at least 28 sheriff’s department devices and by at least a dozen firefighters.” Her attorneys say they also were shown in a bar and an awards gala shortly after the crash.

It is a combined trial for two plaintiffs – Bryant and Chris Chester, a financial adviser who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash and also is suing the county over crash photos of them.

After jury selection starts Wednesday, the case will be heard over the next couple of weeks in the court of U.S. District Judge John F. Walter.

What rights are at issue?

This case is in federal court because the plaintiffs say the county violated their constitutional right under the Fourteenth Amendment to control the remains and death images of their loved ones, as recognized by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in the case of Marsh vs. County of San Diego. In that case, a woman sued that county after a former county prosecutor disseminated autopsy photos of her son to the news media.

They are seeking to hold the county liable under the so-called Monell doctrine, in which local governments can be held responsible when their employees deprive others of their constitutional rights. Bryant has argued the county failed to adequately train county personnel to ensure they did not take or share photographs of human remains without any legitimate governmental purpose.

What is this case not about?

It is not about who was responsible for the crash itself, and the county has wanted that to be clear to the jury. Bryant and Chester previously sued the operator of the doomed helicopter and reached a separate confidential settlement last year to end that case.

This case also is not about the other two families who lost loved ones in the same crash – the Mauser and Altobelli families. They also sued the county over the crash photos but each agreed to accept $1.25 million settlements from the county to end those lawsuits.

Why hasn’t Bryant also settled?

She wants more, but not necessarily more money. She wants “accountability,” said her attorney, Luis Li.

He said it goes beyond a dollar amount, such as a “public statement” that the county’s actions merited punitive damages.

Another possible motivation for Bryant was hinted at in a post on her Instagram account last October. In the post, she is dressed in a Halloween costume as Cruella de Vil, the fictional character from “101 Dalmatians.”

Bryant quoted de Vil, writing, “They say there are five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Well, I'd like to add one more… Revenge.”

How did this start?

Two days after the crash, sheriff’s deputy trainee Joey Cruz allegedly showed gruesome crash-site photos to a bartender at a bar in Norwalk, California. A patron at the bar, Ralph Mendez, heard about the photos from the bartender and later that night filed a complaint on the sheriff department’s website about what he heard.

However, because Mendez did not actually see the photos, the judge will not allow him to testify at trial about them. Cruz and the bartender are expected to be called to testify.

What is the county’s defense?

That the photos were never posted online or publicly disseminated under the standard required by law. The county also has pointed out that Vanessa Bryant has never seen photos of her dead husband or daughter that can be traced to the county.

“The County sympathizes with the losses suffered by the Bryant and Chester families, but this case is about whether the County publicly disseminated crash site photos in violation of their constitutional rights,” said Mira Hashmall, partner at the Miller Barondess law firm and lead outside counsel for the county.

“The answer is no. From the time of the crash to now, the County has worked tirelessly to prevent its crash site photos from getting into the public domain. Over two and a half years later, no County photos have appeared in the media, none can be found online, and the Plaintiffs admit they’ve never seen them.”

Where are the photos?

Many, if not all, were deleted soon after the whistleblower complaint. Villanueva suggested that sheriff's personnel do this to prevent further dissemination.

According to court records, they spread to 28 devices in the sheriff’s department alone. But nine of the 11 sheriff’s personnel known to have possessed the photographs disposed of their cell phones, and a tenth, Cruz, wiped his phone of all data, as noted by Judge Walter in July.

Bryant’s attorneys said this was improper destruction of evidence. Judge Walter agreed that these deletions were prejudicial against the plaintiffs.

“The plaintiffs have been deprived of direct evidence of what the photographs at the heart of this lawsuit depicted, which victims were photographed, how many photos were taken and shared, and the extent of dissemination,” Walter said in court in July.

Because of this, he awarded evidentiary sanctions to the plaintiffs by allowing them to present evidence of this destruction of evidence to the jury. This could be significant in persuading jurors about what happened because any evidence destruction could appear incriminating.

Who will win?

Bryant is a celebrity and a highly sympathetic public figure as a widow. The county is a large government bureaucracy accused of awful behavior. Therefore, it’s not hard to predict whom jurors will favor.

After hearing evidence of deleting photos, jurors also might ask themselves why county workers were doing that if the photos were taken and shared for legitimate work reasons.

The county still has a duty to protect taxpayer money and defend itself against a case it believes has no merit. It will argue that it did right by Bryant by preventing the further spread of photos.

But the whole proceeding could be taxing, for Bryant, for Chester and even for the jurors. The county’s attorney also has expressed concern that Bryant’s other children will attend the trial.

“I don't want the jury to be looking at those children in the courtroom,” Hashmall said in court last week. “I think it's hugely prejudicial.”

“Well, they have a right to be in the courtroom,” Judge Walter said. “It's a public courtroom.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant's widow, Vanessa, goes to trial over crash photos