Warning: This story contains descriptions that some readers may find disturbing.
LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant’s widow, Vanessa, wept silently and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue here Wednesday as she listened to her lawyer 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 more than two years later.
It was the first day of his civil trial against Los Angeles County, a legal battle that has been ongoing for more than two years after nine people died in a helicopter crash in January 2020, including well-known legend Kobe Bryant. -beloved of the Los Angeles Lakers, 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 cut to the chase before the 10-person jury.
“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 crash… But county employees exploited the crash, took and shared photos of Kobe and Gianna’s remains as keepsakes and betrayed the sacred trust we placed in them. grant. They poured salt into an incurable wound. When they did that, they violated the constitution. That’s why we’re here, you’re here, we’re all here in federal court today, to try to right that wrong.
And so it began on Wednesday with an afternoon filled with graphic depictions of the crash scene, a dueling version of events from either side, and grief-stricken testimony from Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, the good friend of Bryant and the first witness to speak.
The case was brought to court by two lawsuits: one by Bryant and the other by Chris Chester, a financial adviser who was also in court after losing his wife, Sarah, and daughter, Payton, in the same crash.
Both plaintiffs accuse county sheriff and fire department employees of taking and sharing photos of the remains of their loved ones at the scene of the crash without having a legitimate government reason to do 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. This, in turn, created two very different accounts of what happened, as explained in opening statements from each side.
The jury will have to decide which version to believe:
Were the county’s first responders mostly heroes doing their job at the scene of the crash, battling through fog and rough terrain to document the crash with photos?
That’s how the county’s outside attorney, Mira Hashmall, described it to the jury while acknowledging “there were mistakes.” One such mistake came two days after the crash, when a sheriff’s deputy trainee, Joey Cruz, showed gruesome photos of the crash 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 these photos,” Hashmall said. “He regrets it”
Or were some of these county employees mostly bad guys who had no reason to take these photos except for their own amusement and sick sense of humor, as Li and the lawyer suggested? of Chester, Jerome Jackson?
They suggested the photos could reappear somewhere online at any time to terrorize Chester and Bryant despite County claims that they were never posted online and were deleted forever at the sheriff’s suggestion shortly after the incident. arrival of the complaint.
“These images are nowhere due to the county’s efforts,” Hashmall said, challenging the plaintiffs’ argument that the county improperly destroyed evidence to cover up wrongdoing.
At issue is whether the photos were “publicly released” in violation of the plaintiffs’ Fourteenth Amendment right to control images of the deaths of their loved ones, as recognized in federal court case law. The county said the photos were not released publicly to the standard required by law. Hashsmall said the plaintiffs had never even seen the photos and there was no evidence of photo sharing involving multiple remains of loved ones.
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, match what Sheriff’s Deputy Douglas Johnson described in photos he took.
‘I don’t do this lightly,’ he said before describing how Ms 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 his fear of the photos reappearing haunted him “every day”. Still, Chester took comfort in knowing that “someday, somewhere, somehow” that those “who were responsible for destroying his right to privacy” and “those who desecrated his loved ones” will one day have to go to court to admit what they did and face justice for it, Jackson said.
“Today is that day,” Jackson told the jury. “This is this place.”
“He’s still my best friend”
After Li and Jackson each made opening statements, Bryant hugged Chester in court. Later, after Hashmall’s opening remarks for the county, Bryant touched Pelinka’s hand as he approached the witness box to testify.
Pelinka, wearing a blue suit and black t-shirt, quickly broke down at Li’s questions about her 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 in tears when asked about Kobe. He said it was like having a “real superhero as your best friend”.
He even said he returned to the crash site with Vanessa around June 2020 “to hit the ground where they were before going to heaven.”
Li then asked him about how the problem with the photos affected Bryant. He said it “added so much more heartache” to the situation.
Two other families who lost loved ones in the crash also sued the photos, but ended their lawsuits last year by agreeing to accept $2.5 million in combined county settlements. Bryant and Chester try their luck with a federal jury instead.
Pelinka is expected to return to the stand on Thursday in a trial that could span two weeks or more.
Follow journalist Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail : [email protected]