A federal jury awarded $31 million in damages after finding Los Angeles County liable for infringing on the constitutional rights of Vanessa Bryant and co-plaintiff Christopher Chester, who each lost a spouse and daughter in the helicopter crash in January 2020.
[Previous story, published at 7:22 p.m. ET]
After listening to 11 days of at times graphic testimony, a group of nine federal jurors deliberated for approximately three and a half hours before reaching their decision.
“No pictures is good. No pictures means no public dissemination… no risk of other people making mistakes,” county attorney Mira Hashmall said in closing arguments of the trial.
In an emotional rebuttal, Bryant’s attorney Luis Li argued Wednesday the actions of the county in taking such photos were reckless and inhumane and caused emotional distress.
“They poured salt into an unhealable wound and that’s why we’re all here today,” he said.
Vanessa Bryant and Christopher Chester have argued that the taking and sharing of those photos caused emotional distress and violated their constitutional rights. Their attorneys asked the jury for damages of up to $42.5 million for Bryant and $32.5 million for Chester. Los Angeles County, though, has argued that it acted appropriately to investigate and delete the photos and prevent them from ever spreading.
Witnesses during the trial included a deputy who said he showed graphic images from the scene while at a bar, another deputy who said he shared photos while playing a video game, a deputy who sent dozens of photos to someone he didn’t know, and a fire official who showed the images to other personnel during an awards ceremony cocktail hour.
Coincidentally, Los Angeles has named Wednesday, August 24, as “Kobe Bryant Day” to honor the Los Angeles Lakers star’s two jersey numbers, 8 and 24, that he wore during his NBA career. The Lakers have retired both numbers.
Defense asks to separate emotions from legality
In closing arguments Wednesday, attorneys for Los Angeles County sought to separate Vanessa Bryant’s emotional testimony from the legal issues the jury must consider.
Hashmall argued the county’s actions to delete the photos resulted in them never being distributed publicly, and she argued further that first responders taking photos did not violate Bryant’s rights.
She urged the jury to consider the law, which only allows for a verdict against the county if it can be proven county policies were deficient enough to prevent the spread of the photos or if there is a longstanding custom of such behavior within the sheriff and fire departments.
“If the county didn’t take (the photo sharing) seriously, why is this whole case based on the county’s investigation?” she said.
Jurors also will have to wrestle with what constitutes “the public” in this case. The plaintiffs argued any deputy without an investigatory reason to have the photos should be considered the public. One of the deputies shared photos containing human remains with another deputy as they were playing the video game “Call of Duty,” and another showed them to a bartender he considered a friend.
Hashmall agreed that was wrong, but asked the jury to consider whether it “shocked the conscience,” a legal threshold the jury must consider in rendering its verdict.
“Does it shock the conscience that he needed to talk?” Hashmall asked. She also noted that the deputy was disciplined for his actions. “That’s not a constitutional issue, that’s a county issue,” she said.
In their rebuttal, Bryant’s attorneys argued the photos could still exist because one of the deputies AirDropped them to a firefighter that hasn’t been identified. They also argue the county inadequately investigated the incident, which has allowed for photos of human remains to potentially surface.
The rebuttal evoked tears from Vanessa Bryant and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka in the courtroom. Li, Bryant’s attorney, said the jury’s decision is “important to families throughout the United States who might suffer a tragedy someday.”
Referring to testimony given by veteran law enforcement officials including Sheriff Alex Villanueva, Li reminded the jury of a practice of first responders keeping “death books” since the Polaroid was around. Li said to the jury: “This has been going on for decades. Make it stop.”
Vanessa Bryant cried audibly and grabbed tissues when Li stated that photos of family members’ bodies torn apart are private and should not be shared with deputies just “because they’re wearing a badge the next morning, to offer [the photos] to their wife.”
In describing how deputies had to have gone out of their way to find Gianna Bryant’s remains in a ravine to photograph her, Li asked, “Does that shock the conscience?”
Li said that while there is no jury form to check a box for better training, better policies, or more discipline, there is only a box jurors can check for damages: “Whatever you put in that box will serve to shine a light on the legacy of Kobe and Gianna Bryant.”
Li concluded with applauding the two whistleblowers, one of whom sat in the courtroom. Li was emotional as he said: “But for those people, we may never have heard of this.”
CNN’s Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism