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Trial over LA County’s handling of Kobe Bryant helicopter crash photos kicks off

The plaintiffs call the photos macabre digital gossip. The county says it's an essential part of any transportation accident investigation.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A lawyer for Vanessa Bryant, the widow of Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, told a jury on Wednesday that LA County employees "poured salt in an unhealable wound" when they took and shared photos of Kobe Bryant's corpse after the 2020 helicopter crash which killed him, his daughter Gianna, and seven others.

The photos, said attorney Luis Li, were shared "for a laugh. They were like souvenirs." Vanessa Bryant, he said, will be "haunted by what they did forever."

The opening statement was the start of a federal civil trial, the result of a lawsuit filed by Bryant and Christopher Chester, whose wife and daughter also died in the helicopter crash. Following the Jan. 26, 2020, crash, at least two county officials took photographs of the dead bodies — a sheriff's deputy and an LA County firefighter.

Both sent copies of the photos to their colleagues, and the photos began to spread through the departments. Two separate complaints were made — the first after a sheriff's deputy showed one of the photos to a bartender, the other after an LA County Fire public information officer showed one of the photos to a group of firefighters and their wives at an awards ceremony.

The photos were subsequently deleted and have never been published online or anywhere else.

The plaintiffs and the county have wildly contrasting views of just why the photos were taken. Li and Chester's attorney, Jerome Jackson, argued the photos were a sort of macabre digital gossip, part of a longstanding practice within law enforcement that they say has gotten out of hand.

"This has been a problem in the public safety community for decades," said Li.

But Mira Hashmall, the lawyer for LA County, told the jury that photographing the scene of the crash was part of a routine investigation first responders perform after any transportation — car, airplane or helicopter — collision that results in a fatality or serious injury.

"Site photography is essential," she said, to preserve a record of a crime scene — or what may be a crime scene — that could be disturbed, as was possible in this case since the helicopter crash started a brush fire in the Santa Monica Mountains. The photographs are also sometimes used to identify victims. "First responders are trained to take photographs at an accident and crime scenes to document the scene."

The two parties also disagree about why the photos were destroyed, and about why many of the officials' phones were deleted or wiped clean after the media got hold of the story. Chester and Bryant's lawyers say the deletion of the photos and phone records amount to a coverup, the destruction of evidence, by a sheriff's department constantly embroiled in controversy.

The county's lawyer, meanwhile, said the photos were destroyed to protect Bryant and Chester, to keep the photos from becoming publicly disseminated.

"There are no county photos anywhere," said Hashmall. "That is not an accident. It's a function of how diligently the county worked to contain them."

Hasmall acknowledged some of the county employees made mistakes. The officer who showed the bartender a photo from the crash site was a friend of the bartender's, she said, and regrets it.

She said that LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva "ordered that the photos not see the light of day," and suggested that he purposely did not follow the "traditional path" or "state law," which would have taken too much time.

"He picked what he viewed was the only option — decisive action," she said, to contain the photos. "He felt like every second mattered." And so he ordered everyone to delete the photos. "And thank goodness," Hashmall added.

The trial is expected to last nine or ten days, and will include testimony by Chester, Bryant and Villanueva.

It is something of a surprise that the case made it to trial. In February, U.S. District Judge John Walter urged both sides to settle the matter. The jury can only award damages and any punitive damages would be limited to individual, salaried county employees and wouldn't be substantial, he said.

"What more is the jury going to be able to give her?" Walter asked Li. "I can't fire a deputy."

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