Kobe Bryant’s wife Vanessa sobbed as a California jury was told how a sheriff’s deputy shared graphic photos in a bar of the helicopter crash in which the basketball great and their daughter were killed.
Bryant, Gianna Bryant and seven others died in the crash on 26 January 2020 when it came down in bad weather as they flew from Orange County to a basketball tournament.
Ms Bryant’s lawyer, Luis Li, told the federal court in Los Angeles that just two days after the fatal accident, Deputy Joey Cruz was “showing pictures of [Kobe’s] decapitated body”, at a bar in Norwalk, California.
In his opening statement of the civil trial in which Ms Bryant and another plaintiff are suing Los Angeles County, Mr Li showed the 10-person jury video of Deputy Cruz sat at a bar where he showed his phone to the bartender, who walked away.
A whistleblower was so concerned at the deputy’s alleged actions that they filed a formal complaint with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
“January 26, 2020, was and always will be the worst day of Vanessa Bryant’s life,” Mr Li reportedly told the jury.
“County employees exploited the accident. They took and shared pictures of Kobe and Gianna as souvenirs. …They poured salt in an unhealable wound.”
Mr Li said that first responders at the scene in Calabasas, including those with the fire department, “walked around the wreckage and took pictures of broken bodies from the helicopter crash. They took close-ups of limbs, of burnt flesh. It shocks the conscience.”
And he added: “This case is about accountability. We’re going to prove to you that county employees took pictures and shared them widely.”
He told the court that the photos had been shared with so many people that it was impossible for officials to guarantee that they will not be leaked in the future.
Ms Bryant and fellow plaintiff Christopher Chester have not seen the photos but are suing the county for emotional distress and the threat that they will one day become public.
County lawyers have claimed the photos, which were even later shown by county officials during a cocktail hour at an awards gala, were taken for legitimate educational and law enforcement training purposes.
Mr Chester, an Orange county financial adviser, lost his wife Sarah, and their 13-year-old daughter, Payton, in the crash.
“Every single day since the county did what it did, Mrs Bryant and Mr Chester have the risk, have the fear, have the anxiety, have the terror that they might have to re-live the loss of their family members in the most excruciating way,” Mr Li added.
Also killed in the crash were John Altobelli; his wife, Keri Altobelli; their 14-year-old daughter Alyssa Altobelli; coach Christina Mauser; and the pilot, Ara Zobayan.
The families of Mauser and the Altobellis sued over the photos and settled with Los Angeles County last November and settled for $1.25m each.
Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s former agent, is expected to be the first witness in the case. He drove Ms Bryant to the Malibu Lost Hills station sheriff’s substation after the crash to meet with Sheriff Alex Villanueva.