Warning: This story contains descriptions that some readers may find disturbing.
LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, wept quietly and dabbed her eyes with tissue here Wednesday as she listened to her attorney describe a series of events that made the worst day of her life “unbearably worse” – to the point that she continues to live in fear and terror over it more than two years later.
This was Day 1 of her civil trial against Los Angeles County, a legal battle more than two years in the making after nine died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, including Kobe Bryant, the beloved Los Angeles Lakers legend, and Gianna Bryant, their daughter.
Vanessa Bryant sat in the federal courtroom wearing a black mask and black suit, next to her attorney, Luis Li, who got right to the point in front of the jury of 10.
EMOTIONAL 'BEST FRIEND': Lakers GM Rob Pelinka fights through tears at trial over Kobe crash photos
“January 26, 2020, was and always will be the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life,” Li told the jury. “The county did not cause the helicopter to crash … But county employees exploited the accident, took and shared pictures of Kobe’s and Gianna’s remains as souvenirs and betrayed the sacred trust we place in them. They poured salt in an unhealable wound. When they did that, they violated the constitution. That is why we are here, you are here, we are all here in federal court today, to try to right that wrong.”
And so it began Wednesday on an afternoon filled with graphic descriptions of the crash scene, a dueling version of events from each side and grief-stricken testimony from Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s good friend and the first witness to take the stand.
The case was brought to trial by two lawsuits: one by Bryant and another by Chris Chester, a financial adviser who also was present in court after losing his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Payton, in the same crash.
Both plaintiffs accuse county sheriff’s and fire department employees of taking and sharing photos of their loved ones’ remains at the crash scene without having a legitimate government reason for doing so. Both said they suffered emotional distress because of it and are seeking damages to be determined at trial.
But the county is fighting back, saying the plaintiffs’ cases are not supported by evidence. In turn, this has created two very different accounts of what happened, as explained in opening statements by each side.
The jury will have to decide which version to believe:
Were the county first responders mostly heroes who were doing their jobs at the crash scene, fighting through fog and difficult terrain to document the accident with photos?
That is how the county’s outside counsel, Mira Hashmall, described it to the jury while acknowledging “there were mistakes.” One of those mistakes came two days after the crash, when a sheriff’s deputy trainee, Joey Cruz, showed gruesome crash photos to a bartender at a bar, leading a bar patron to file a complaint with the sheriff’s department later that night.
“In a moment of weakness, he showed those photos,” Hashmall said. “He regrets it.”
Or were some of these county employees mostly villains who had no reason to take those photos except for their own amusement and sick sense of humor, as suggested by Li and the attorney for Chester, Jerome Jackson?
They suggested the photos could reemerge somewhere online at any moment to terrorize Chester and Bryant despite the county’s assertions that they were never posted online and were deleted forever at the suggestion of the sheriff soon after the complaint came in.
“Those pictures are nowhere because of the efforts of the county,” Hashmall said, disputing the plaintiffs’ argument that the county improperly destroyed the evidence to cover up wrongdoing.
At issue is whether the photos were “publicly disseminated” in violation of the plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment right to control death images of their loved ones, as recognized by precedent in federal court. The county said the photos were not publicly disseminated under the standard required by law. Hashsmall said the plaintiffs have never even seen the photos and that there is no evidence of sharing of photos involving several of the loved ones’ remains.
Jackson, Chester’s attorney, disagrees. He even told the jury he had “no choice” but to share graphic details about what happened to Chester’s daughter and wife in the crash. Such details, he said, matched what sheriff’s deputy Douglas Johnson described in the photos he took.
“I don’t do this lightly,” he said before describing how Mrs. Chester suffered a severe vertical wound to her face and was cut in half at the waist with her vital organs found in the debris field.
“That’s what they photographed,” Jackson said. “That’s what they shared. That’s what they laughed at.”
Jackson said Chester, 48, developed a drinking problem after the crash and that his fear of the photos reemerging haunts “every single one of his days.” Chester still comforted himself to know that “someday, somewhere, somehow” that those “who were responsible for destroying his right to privacy” and “those who desecrated his loved ones” will have to go to court one day to admit what they did and face justice for it, Jackson said.
“Today is that day,” Jackson told the jury “This is that place.”
'He's still my best friend'
After Li and Jackson each gave opening statements, Bryant hugged Chester in court. Later, after Hashmall’s opening remarks for the county, Bryant touched hands with Pelinka as he approached the witness stand to testify.
Pelinka, wearing a blue suit and black T-shirt, quickly broke down under questioning from Li about his relationship with the Bryant family. He was Gianna’s godfather, as well as a close friend of Kobe and Vanessa.
“He’s still my best friend,” Pelinka said through tears when asked about Kobe. He said it was like having a “true superhero as your best friend.”
He even said he returned to the crash site with Vanessa around June 2020 “to touch the soil where they were before they went to heaven.”
Li later questioned him about how the issue with the photos affected Bryant. He said it’s “added so much more grief” to the situation.
Two other families who lost loved ones in the crash also filed suit over the photos but ended their lawsuits last year by agreeing to accept $2.5 million in combined settlements from the county. Both Bryant and Chester are taking their chances with a federal jury instead.
Pelinka is expected to return to the stand Thursday in a trial that could stretch across two weeks or more.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Vanessa Bryant's trial against county begins with emotional testimony