Vanessa Bryant's attorney accused Los Angeles County officials of exploiting Kobe Bryant's death and sharing photos from the scene of his helicopter crash "for a laugh" in opening arguments of a civil trial that started on Wednesday.
Bryant is suing the county for invasion of privacy, arguing that Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and firefighters took and shared grisly photos from the scene of the 2020 crash that claimed the lives of her husband and Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant, their 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others.
Per the Associated Press, Bryant's attorney Luis Li argued in his opening statement that the photos were taken on cell phones and shared in nonprofessional personal settings that he described as "visual gossip." Bryant wiped away tears as Li made his case.
"January 26, 2020 was the worst day of Vanessa Bryant's life," Li said in a Los Angeles U.S. District Court room. "The county made it much worse. They poured salt in an open wound and rubbed it in. ...
"They were shared by deputies playing video games. They were shared repeatedly with people who had absolutely no reason to receive them."
Mira Hashmall, the lawyer for the county, argued that the photos were a necessary tool for the first responders on the scene.
"Site photography is essential," Hashmall said.
They each made their case in front of a jury of 10 that was selected earlier Wednesday and includes a nun, a TV producer and a college student. Per CNN, potential jurors who claimed strong feelings for either Kobe or Vanessa Bryant or Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva were struck from the pool.
Villanueva acknowledged in 2020 that members of his department took photos and shared them in personal settings. He said in March of that year that he was content that eight deputies who took photos had deleted them.
“That was my No. 1 priority, was to make sure those photos no longer exist,” Villanueva told NBC4 in 2020. “We identified the deputies involved, they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them. And we're content that those involved did that.”
Per AP, Li showed jurors security footage from a bar of an off-duty deputy sharing images from the scene with a bartender, who shook his head in response. He then told jurors that firefighters shared images at a banquet two weeks later and showed them documentation that those photos were eventually shared with 30 people.
Bryant described the trauma the existence of the photos has caused her in a pre-trial legal filing in December.
“These deputies and firefighters took the worst thing that has ever happened to me — the worst thing that could happen to any mother or spouse — and made it worse,” Bryant stated in the filing. “I will never be able to shake the anguish from knowing that the officials who are supposed to keep us safe treated Kobe and Gianna with such callous disrespect.
"For the rest of my life, one of two things will happen: either close-up photos of my husband’s and daughter’s bodies will go viral online, or I will continue to live in fear of that happening.”
Hashmall argued on Wednesday that the photos haven't appeared online, a testament to the discipline of the first responders in ensuring their security.
"They're not online," Hashmall said. "They're not in the media. They've never even been seen by the plaintiffs themselves. That is not an accident. That is a function of how diligent they were."
She also addressed the deputy who shared the image with the bartender, whom she described as a longtime friend of the deputy.
"He pulled out his phone, and that should not have happened," she said. "In a lapse, in a moment of weakness, he showed those photos, and he has regretted it every day of his life."
Chris Chester, whose wife Sarah and 13-year-old daughter Payton were killed in the crash, is also a plaintiff. Per USA Today, his lawyer Jerome Jackson described a graphic image of Sarah's body having been cut in half at the waist as one that was shared.
“That’s what they photographed,” Jackson said, per USA Today. “That’s what they shared. That’s what they laughed at.”
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka was Kobe's agent and close friend and Gianna's godfather. He took the stand on Wednesday and testified that the sharing of the images has “added so much more grief," according to USA Today.
Hasmhall argued that the grief experienced by the crash victim's survivors was about their deaths — not the photos.
"There is no doubt these families have suffered," she said, per AP. "It's unspeakable. But this case is not about the loss from the crash. It's about the pictures."