Warning: This story contains descriptions that some readers may find disturbing.
LOS ANGELES — Vanessa Bryant’s ongoing civil trial against Los Angeles County has gotten so gory and gruesome at times that Bryant felt compelled to stay out of the courtroom during testimony three times in the first three days, including one time after she got up and left the room in distress.
In one exchange, a witness described “pieces of flesh hanging from trees.”
In another exchange, an attorney asked a witness from the coroner’s office about what happened to the liver, bladder and skull of one of the victims of the helicopter crash that also killed Bryant’s daughter and husband Kobe, the NBA legend.
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VANESSA BRYANT TRIAL: Witnesses squirm as they testify about Kobe crash photos
“Didn't it open (the victim's) brain cavity?” the attorney asked.
“Yes,” said the witness. “The cavity was opened, and the cavity that contains the brain was exposed.”
“And the brain tissue was vacated, correct?” the attorney asked. “Missing?”
“Correct,” the witness replied in front of a federal jury of five men and four women.
It is all part of the cruel irony of this graphic case. Bryant is suing the county for invasion of privacy, accusing county sheriff’s and fire department employees of improperly taking and sharing grisly photos of her deceased daughter and husband shortly after they perished in the crash that killed all nine aboard in January 2020.
Her attorney told the jury last week she lives in fear of these crash-scene photos re-emerging at any moment and is haunted by the thought of it – even though the county says the photos never were posted online and were deleted shortly after the accident.
So how does she prove her case against the county?
By asking witnesses to describe horrific details from the photos and the crash in public court.
That is the strategy of the attorneys for Bryant and Chris Chester, a financial adviser who lost his wife and daughter in the same crash and is suing the county for the same reasons.
The county has noted that Bryant’s and Chester’s attorneys are the ones who have brought these macabre descriptions of their loved ones’ remains into the trial, not the county. To some observers, this seems like burning the village to save it.
“The County is not responsible for the Plaintiffs’ decision to publicize these graphic details about the tragic injuries suffered by their loved ones,” said a statement from Mira Hashmall, partner at the firm Miller Barondess and the lead outside counsel for the county. “The County has worked tirelessly over the past two and a half years to keep this very information confidential. Sometimes trial strategy goes too far.”
In response, the plaintiffs’ attorneys have said the county forced them to do this. That’s because county sheriff’s and fire department employees deleted the photos in question shortly after the crash – improperly destroying evidence of what they did, according to the plaintiffs.
Therefore, the plaintiffs’ attorneys say the only way to “prove” what was in these since-deleted pictures must come from eliciting verbal descriptions of the photos from witnesses in court and then match them to the bodies of the clients’ deceased family members.
Shocking the jury?
Such a strategy wouldn’t be necessary if they still had the actual photos to prove what was in them, according to Luis Li, Bryant’s attorney.
Li and Chester’s attorney, Jerome Jackson, said the county employees had no legitimate business reason for taking and sharing these photos and instead used them as “souvenirs” or objects of amusement.
“Defendants deleted the photos and failed to take reasonable steps to preserve the evidence of their actions,” Li stated in court records before the trial. “Plaintiffs must therefore rely on other evidence, such as testimony from witnesses who saw the photos about what they depicted. Plaintiffs will match those photo descriptions to their loved ones by eliciting testimony about where their loved ones were located at the site and the condition of their remains.”
A big question is how this will affect the jurors. Will it help shock them into punishing the county? Or will they be offended and blame the plaintiffs’ attorneys for being gratuitous?
“If it’s overdone, that has the potential to turn folks off, and to maybe not feel so sympathetic,” said Alfonso Estrada, a labor attorney with the firm Hanson Bridgett who is not involved in this case but has been following it. “It’s a fine line they’re walking there.”
The graphic nature of the case is hard to avoid to some extent. The victims died in a high-velocity crash in which the helicopter essentially exploded apart upon impact in Calabasas, California. Body parts and debris scattered across a hilly, hellish landscape with a toxic magnesium fire menacing those who arrived at the scene. Any photos from it would have reflected this.
The county still fought having graphic details spill into court, calling it inflammatory and noting the photos were deleted to avoid having them circulated in public. Yet now the descriptions of their contents and the crash are coming out in a high-profile trial at the request of those who claim the sharing of these images violated the families' privacy.
At one point early in the trial, county counsel Hashmall told the judge she thought Chester’s attorney went too far when questioning the coroner’s witness about a victim’s remains.
“It's true, isn't it, that (the victim’s) brain matter was either destroyed as part of the crash or spread over the debris field?” Jackson asked the witness.
“Objection, Your Honor, 403,” Hashmall said, referring to evidence Rule 403, which is used to exclude evidence that is unfairly prejudicial or needlessly cumulative.
“Sustained,” said U.S. District Judge John F. Walter.
Close-up photo descriptions
Jackson in particular has steered certain witnesses into graphic detail. This is because the county made this strategy necessary, he said in court. The county has said there is no proof the family of his client is even in the photos at issue in this case, unlike Kobe Bryant, whose size and skin color arguably made his body easier to identify.
So Jackson has tried to show his client’s deceased family members were in these illicit photos by matching descriptions of the photos from witnesses to the condition of the Chesters’ bodies as documented by their autopsy reports.
“Given the burden of proof, if no one else had these injuries, if no one else lost these organs, if no one else's intestines were seen or photographed in the vegetation, there is a preponderance of evidence that demonstrates these were (a certain victim’s) organs,” Jackson told the judge in a pretrial conference in July.
Chester and Bryant say their constitutional rights were violated by the taking and sharing of these unnecessary photos and that the county failed to prevent it because of a lack of policy and training. They say they suffered emotional distress because of it and are seeking damages to be determined at trial.
But they didn’t need to take this to trial and go through with this. Two other victims’ families agreed to accept $1.25 million from the county to end similar lawsuits over the photos.
This indicates Bryant wanted something more than money and instead wanted to hold the county defendants publicly accountable – even if it takes an additional toll on her.
Her goal – and Chester’s – now is to prove their case with a preponderance of the evidence, which hasn’t been easy for several reasons. Another example came in an exchange last week between a plaintiff’s attorney and sheriff’s deputy Doug Johnson, who took dozens of photos from the crash scene after hiking to it shortly after the accident.
“I need you to tell me if what I'm asking is correct, but I don't want to go into unnecessary graphic detail, OK?” asked Eric Tuttle, one of Bryant’s attorneys.
Referencing a photo Johnson took from the scene, Tuttle asked him if a torso in it appeared “contorted.”
“Yes, sir,” Johnson said.
“And you don't remember being able to see that victim's head, correct?” Tuttle asked.
“That’s correct,” Johnson replied.
“You also took a close-up photo of part of an arm and hand with dark African American skin tone, correct?”
“And those remains were located in the middle of the wreckage where the helicopter came to rest, right?”
After the plaintiffs rest their case in the coming days, the county is expected to call several witnesses in its defense. The trial started Aug. 10 and is expected to last well into next week.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant photos trial: Why it's gotten so gory and gruesome