Kobe Bryant crash photo lawsuit: Images were shared among dozens of LA County employees, attorney claims in opening statements

Vanessa Bryant became emotional when Victor Gutierrez, a bartender, was asked if he had seen the body of her daughter, Gianna Bryant, in the footage. Gutierrez had described what he saw in the photos shown by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy.

Bryant wept, stood up, and her attorney asked the presiding judge for permission to leave the courtroom.

“You don’t have to ask my permission,” the judge said.

Bryant did not return for the remainder of Gutierrez’s testimony, which continued on January 28, 2020 – two days after the crash – with a series of surveillance clips from the bar. Gutierrez described how he shuddered at the photos and then admitted to telling five groups of people the condition of the victims’ bodies.

One person he told the photos to was Ralph Mendez, who later filed a complaint against the deputy who initially showed Gutierrez the photos.

“I was incredulous, disappointed, disgusted and angry,” Mendez said, referring to the details Gutierrez told him that night. “In the position he is in…I felt he had the public’s trust on his shoulders and when he showed pictures of the victims, he betrayed the public’s trust.”

Bryant reviewed the conclusion of Thursday’s testimony from the trial’s first witness, Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, as well as one of the first responders.

Bryant was not in court during a coroner’s testimony, but returned to listen to Guitierrez’s testimony before leaving the courtroom.

The trial is expected to last about two weeks and witnesses are likely to be Vanessa Bryant and LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. The lawsuit, filed in September 2020, seeks undisclosed damages, alleging civil rights violations, negligence, emotional distress and invasion of privacy.
A jury of six women and four men was selected for the case. They include a nun, someone who works in TV production for NBC Universal, a college student, a real estate investor, a pharmaceutical researcher, a computer science professor, and a restaurant host.

Dozens of employees have shared photos of the crash, lawyer says

Bryant said the disturbing images taken at the scene were shared with more than two dozen Los Angeles County employees, her attorney, Luis Li, said Wednesday.

Li presented a flowchart of how the first photos spread from one deputy to more than a dozen deputies and more than a dozen members of the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Some photos were shared between delegates as they played the “Call of Duty” video game, Li said in his opening statement.

Vanessa Bryant wiped away the tears as Li described how the sheriff’s officers took and shared the photos.

“They took pictures of broken bodies…close-ups of limbs, of burnt flesh,” the lawyer said. “It shocks the conscience.”

Vanessa Bryant exits a federal courthouse in Los Angeles on August 10, 2022.

Surveillance footage played in the courtroom showed one of the officers in a bar showing a photo to a bartender, who flinched and turned away after seeing the image.

“Never in her worst nightmares did (Bryant) imagine that police and first responders would go — and they would be the ones — to take pictures of Kobe and Gianna’s remains for no reason,” Li said.

The lawyer said county officials did not cause the accident on Jan. 26, 2020, but accused them of exploiting it by saying, “They poured salt into an incurable wound.”

The defense stressed that the photos were not leaked online or to the media and warned jurors to separate the tragedy of the crash from the facts of the case about the photos.

“The families have suffered unspeakable losses … but that’s about the helicopter crash,” said Mira Hashmall, an attorney representing LA County. “This case is about the first responders and what they did.”

Lakers GM sobbed during testimony

Wednesday’s proceedings ended with the testimony of Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, who sobbed as he described being best friends with Kobe Bryant and godfather to Gianna. On the day of the crash, Pelinka said he was helping Vanessa Bryant assure the sheriff that the site would be safe from people trying to take pictures of the scene.

Pelinka also shared the fear, anxiety and sadness he saw in Vanessa Bryant after learning that the crime scene photos were being circulated to the officers.

Next to Bryant is a second plaintiff Christopher Chester, who lost his wife Sarah and their daughter Payton in the crash. Chester’s attorney, Jerome Jackson, said the photos of the scene may have captured disturbing scenes of Sarah’s remains.

“Why would anyone use those same photos for ballroom chatter and cocktail chatter?” said Jackson.

The victims of the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant shared more than a passion for basketball

A key argument in the case is whether first responders should have taken pictures of the crash site in the first place.

The defense argued that there were valid grounds for site photos, as the crash occurred a mile on a mountainside at an elevation of 1,250 feet. Hashmall said the deputy took pictures of more than just bodies.

If the deputy had not documented the scene while he was being trained, Hashmall said, he would not have been able to inform the command center, which was tasked not only with search and recovery, but also with fighting a wildfire caused by the crash.

“If you don’t have a photo,” she said, “you can’t think of an answer.”

David Katz, a reserve deputy with the LA County Search and Rescue Unit in Malibu, testified that he was told by a supervisor not to take photos of the crash site once Kobe Bryant was known to be one of the victims, but when he arrived at the scene arrived on the scene, found that a deputy had already taken the photos.

When asked by the defense whether he was surprised that the deputy had taken the photos, Katz said “not at all…it would make sense that the command post would want to know what they were dealing with.”

Later, LA County Coroner Captain Emily Tauscher testified that the office did not ask the officers to take photos of the remains.

During the cross-examination, Tauscher said the office has relied on photos of first responders in the past because the “scene can change from the time the incident takes place until the coroner arrives at the scene”.

The defense admitted the photos should not have been allowed to spread as they did, but claimed the county’s early action effectively contained the photos.

“We are being sued for photos that are not online, are not in the media and have never been seen by the plaintiff,” Hashmall said.

Bryant’s attorney told the jurors that he will show that the county’s actions did not fully curb the dissemination of the photos and that they could still appear online.

After the accident, Sheriff Villanueva told CNN the department was investigating and eight deputies had to take administrative action over allegations that they shared photos of the accident scene with people outside the investigation.

The sheriff said in March 2020 that all photos of the scene in the possession of the deputies had been removed. Months later, Vanessa Bryant’s attorneys filed a motion claiming the department’s actions amounted to destroying evidence.

Eric Levenson and Stella Chan of CNN contributed to this report.

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