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Vanessa Bryant: ‘I’m willing to go through hell and back to get justice for my husband and daughter’

Kobe Bryant's surviving wife, Vanessa, and LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, arguably the civil trial's two star witnesses, testified on Friday.

(CN) — Vanessa Bryant, the surviving wife of Laker star Kobe Bryant, told the court on Friday, "I live in fear, every day, of being on social media and having the photographs pop up." She was referring to crash site photos taken by sheriff's deputies and LA County Fire officials on the day of the helicopter crash that killed her husband, daughter and seven others.

Bryant has sued the county over its handling of the photos. But for the first eight days of the trial, nearly everything about them has been the subject of dispute: how many there were, what exactly they showed, why they were taken and why they were shared. The photographs have never been published. But both Bryant and the other plaintiff in the lawsuit, Christopher Chester, whose wife and daughter were also killed in the crash, say they remain haunted by the possibility that the graphic images may one day surface.

Friday's emotional testimony by Bryant was one of the first times she's publicly addressed the crash and the controversy surrounding the photos. She told the court she was "devastated" to learn that the photos were taken, that her first instinct was to "run down the block and just scream."

"I expected them to have compassion, respect," she said, referring to the first responders. "My husband and my daughter deserved dignity."

"Every night," she said, "I think about what was done to them."

Later, she said that she sometimes pictures the deputies sharing the photos with each other and laughing about them. She said the fear of the photos being disseminated to the public has given her panic attacks.

During cross examination, Mira Hashmall, the attorney representing LA County in the case, suggested that Bryant's panic attacks may have come from other sources. For example, she pointed to numerous companies, foundations, trusts and LLCs all run — at least on paper — by Bryant.

"On top of everything else, you're juggling a business empire, it sounds like," Hashmall said. She added that perhaps the lawsuit itself was adding to her stress.

"I'm willing to go through hell and back to get justice for my husband and daughter," Bryant answered.

In their opening arguments, attorneys for Bryant and Chester described some of the crash site photographs taken by a sheriff's deputy and two fire department officials, as close-up shots of human remains, gruesome shots of headless torsos, severed limbs and organs scattered on the charred ground. Some depositions given by first responders, as well as early interviews conducted by the sheriff departments internal affairs division, backed that story up.

But much of the testimony by law enforcement personnel called to testify by the plaintiffs during this trial has painted a much different picture. Sheriff's deputies and fire department officials now say the pictures were wide shots, depicting the crash site as a whole and not focused on human remains. Deputies also say that the photographs served a real investigative purpose: they documented a scene which may have been about to be altered, and they helped first responders understand the scope of the scene. They could also have helped identify the helicopter.

The plaintiffs, meanwhile, have argued that deputies took the photos as macabre souvenirs or trophies. Their narrative was bolstered by news interviews given by Sheriff Alex Villanueva in the weeks following the crash. At the time, the elected sheriff of LA County told media that the only people who had a legitimate reason to photograph the crash victims were from the coroner's office and the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency. He also said there was long-standing practice of deputies collecting horrific photos of dead bodies from crime scenes and keeping them in so-called "death books."

After Bryant's testimony, the plaintiffs rested their case. As their first witness, the county called Sheriff Villanueva, in part to explain those early interviews. He attempted to do so by explaining that he was speaking with limited information and hadn't been "educated" about the procedures governing crash site photos taken by personal cellphones. The situation, he said, was unique — "the first, to my knowledge."

He defended the actions of some of his deputies, saying that the deputy who initially took the pictures "did his job," and that some of the photos were shared for legitimate reasons.

A key issue in the trial is just why Sheriff Villanueva ordered the photos deleted, an act that the plaintiffs have argued amounted to the destruction of evidence, perhaps even a cover-up.

But the sheriff said deleting the photos was the only way to prevent them from getting out.

When he first heard of the existence of the crash site photos, he told his staff, "These photos can never see the light of day." Soon, all the deputies who'd taken and received the photos were asked to come in to discuss the situation. But some wanted to have an attorney with them. That, said Villanueva, would have taken too long.

"In football, they call it an audible," said Villanueva. He took what he called a "bold step": he offered the deputies "amnesty," as long as they came forward then and there, deleted the pictures, and told investigators who they'd sent them to. As long as the images never appeared online, the officers would walk away with only a "performance log entry" — essentially a warning.

"That was the bargain that got them into the station," Villanueva testified. "And it worked." He added: "That was our primary concern: making sure the photographs never got out. Then accountability. We had to choose one or the other, and we chose correctly." He added later: "The fact that [they] haven't ended up on social media tells me they've done a thorough job."

Earlier, Hashmall had asked Bryant if deleting the photos hadn't been the right thing to do — that is, hadn't that made it less likely they would get out. Bryant responded: "It made it less likely to be able to recover evidence."

The trial resumes Monday, with closing arguments expected early in the week.

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