LOS ANGELES – On the 44th anniversary of the birth of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, an attorney for his widow, Vanessa, asked a jury in federal court here Tuesday to deliver justice on behalf of him and his daughter more than two years after their deaths.
This was the 10th day of Vanessa Bryant’s civil trial against Los Angeles County, another day of tears for her and the final day of testimony after hearing from dozens of witnesses. It was also the first day of closing arguments and the first time an attorney in the case put a dollar amount on what he wants the jury to award Bryant and Chris Chester, her fellow plaintiff at this trial:
Chester’s attorney, Jerome Jackson, asked for up to $2.5 million each for their past 2.5 years of emotional distress, plus up to $1 million for each year of their future distress – 40 years for Bryant and 30 for Chester.
“When I reach this point of closing arguments, I’m usually anxious about not asking for too much,” Jackson told the jury in closing arguments. “I don’t have that anxiety today, because I will tell you ladies and gentlemen, you can’t award too much money for what they went through. You can’t stack it too high. You can’t spread it too wide. What they went through is inhuman and inhumane.”
Bryant has not asked for a specific amount.
Both she and Chester brought this case to trial after suing the county in 2020, several months after they each lost spouses and daughters in a helicopter crash that killed all nine aboard in Calabasas, California. They are not blaming the county for the crash itself but what happened afterward. They both accused county sheriff’s and fire department employees of using their personal phones to take graphic photos of their deceased loved ones at the crash scene despite not having legitimate business reason for doing so.
The county says the photos never were posted online and were deleted shortly after the crash. But Bryant and Chester say they live in fear of the photos resurfacing because there’s no way to be sure if they still exist somewhere, ready to pop up at any moment.
"Forty-four years ago today, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Kobe Bryant was born,” Bryant’s attorney, Craig Jennings Lavoie, told the jury as he began his closing argument. “Today is his birthday. It’s an honor to stand here representing Mrs. Bryant asking for justice and accountability on his behalf, and her behalf, and on behalf of their daughter Gianna, who would be 16 if she was still here with us.”
TRIAL COVERAGE: Vanessa Bryant gives emotional testimony
CRASH PHOTOS: Trial has been graphically gruesome. Does it have to be?
Bryant wore black to the trial Tuesday and made her first public Instagram post since the trial began Aug. 10. It was a photo of her and Kobe with a comment:
“Happy birthday, baby! I love you and miss you so much!”
Her remembrance soon turned to sadness in court, where the trial is nearing an end. After closing arguments resume Wednesday morning, the jury of five men and four women will be tasked with making a series of decisions about the case:
►Did these county first responders violate Bryant’s and Chester’s constitutional privacy rights under the Fourteenth Amendment by publicly disseminating these crash-scene photos, allegedly because they wanted to use them as “souvenirs” or objects of amusement?
►If so, is the county liable for it as an organization?
►And if that’s the case, how much should the jury award them in exchange for their past and future emotional distress?
Jennings Lavoie walked the jury through key points of the evidence in the trial, including the conflicting statements of those who took and shared the photos, as well as the two main public incidents at which county workers shared crash-scene photos. One involved fire captain Tony Imbrenda showing crash photos at an awards gala in February 2020, when a witness testified she overheard that the photos included an image of Kobe’s “burnt-up” body, which Imbrenda denied at trial.
In another case, Jennings Lavoie told the jury the “clearest example” of a violation came from sheriff’s deputy trainee, Joey Cruz, who showed crash-scene photos at a restaurant bar two days after the crash.
Jennings Lavoie also brought up the case of fire captain, Brian Jordan, who walked the scene after the crash taking unnecessary photos of dead bodies, according to the fire department. Jordan testified he was ordered to take photos of the crash scene by Anthony Marrone, currently the acting chief.
But Marrone testified this week that wasn’t true. He also said Jordan at one point texted him the location of Gianna Bryant’s remains in a ravine at the crash site.
“Based on that, chief Marrone understood that Brian Jordan had eyes on her ... in that ravine,” Jennings Lavoie said.
Jennings Lavoie then accused Jordan of taking “personal souvenir photos of a deceased child, not for any business purpose, but because he wanted to give these photos to himself, to take them home with him as a trophy.”
Sitting at the plaintiffs’ table in front of the jury, Bryant wiped her eyes with tissue as Jennings Lavoie delved into this subject.
“Can you imagine?” Jennings Lavoie asked the jury. “You’re charged with deciding whether that shocks the conscience. It shocks the conscience times 1,000. And he publicly disseminated those photos after taking them by giving them to himself (and) walking off the scene that day.”
In December 2020, the fire department sent Jordan a letter of its “intention to discharge” him because of his misuse of such photos, saying the photos "only served to appeal to baser instincts and desires for what amounted to visual gossip." Jordan decided to retire early instead. He testified last week that he was in court because of "false allegations," that he couldn’t remember being at the crash scene that day and claimed not to know who Gianna Bryant even was.
Destruction of evidence
Jordan also was asked in court last week whatever happened to the hard drive on his computer, which was missing when he was required to turn it in to his employer. He said he had no clue, leading the plaintiffs attorneys to imply it could still contain grisly photos that could reemerge at any moment.
This was another key part of the plaintiffs’ case – the destruction of evidence. Because county employees deleted photos shortly after the crash, the plaintiffs have no way of showing exactly what was in the photos or where they went. Their attorneys instead have had to elicit testimony about what they contained from witnesses and then match them to descriptions of the accident victims.
“You can presume the evidence would have been bad for them,” Jennings Lavoie told the jury.
Jennings Lavoie also told the jury about the plaintiffs’ theory that the county is liable for the conduct of its employees in this case because it failed to have adequate policies or training to prevent it. He showed the jury video footage of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva giving an interview in which he said cops have had a long tradition of taking and sharing gruesome death photos from accidents or crimes scenes.
“It’s been tolerated for decades,” Jennings Lavoie told the jury.
The county disputes this, but the jury first will have to determine whether county employees violated the rights of Bryant and Chester in this case.
Chester’s attorney asked the jury to attribute half of the damages as the responsibility of the sheriff’s department and half to the fire department.
“They stole his dignity and his family’s privacy,” Jackson said of his client. “They did it intentionally. They did it cruelly. They did it inhumanely. And they laughed about it, and they lied about it. And then they tried to fight it with a clumsy, sloppy and dumb cover-up where at times they couldn’t even keep their story straight.”
The county is scheduled to give its closing argument to the jury on Wednesday.
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kobe Bryant photos trial: Jury urged to give $75 million to plaintiffs