The Biggest Bombshells From The Vanessa Bryant Trial

On January 26, 2020, famed Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others died in a tragic helicopter accident. The group was en route to a youth basketball game when pilot Ara Zobayan lost control of the helicopter while navigating less than ideal flight conditions. The crash ultimately changed the lives of all families involved, including the three surviving daughters of Kobe and his wife Vanessa Bryant. After the accident, Vanessa filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County over first responders’ handling of graphic photos of the gruesome aftermath of the helicopter crash. She shared that those images included photos of her husband’s body, according to court filings obtained by the Washington Post. That revelation prompted California Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign legislation barring officials from sharing photos of fatal crime scenes for any reason that wasn’t work-related, per CNN.

In addition to the state of California, Vanessa has also taken legal action herself. The grieving mother and widow sought justice by filing a lawsuit against Los Angeles County for invasion of privacy, along with co-plaintiff Christopher Chester. After the 11-day trial in August 2022, Vanessa received $15 million. It was later reported that she plans to donate this money to her husband’s charitable foundations Mamba and Mambacita Sports, which provide resources to athletes in need.

But before Vanessa Bryant could win her lawsuit against the county, a series of bombshells emerged during the emotional trial.

The judge scolded lawyers

This process got heated before it even officially started. A pre-trial conference held in July 2022 frustrated California District Judge John Walter, who stated that the large amount of evidence from both parties could lead to an extremely lengthy trial. According to the insider, Walter said, “It’s been going on since February and all I get is a document that’s a few hundred pages long and not very helpful.”

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During the conference, Walters extended the start date for the trial to give both parties an opportunity to narrow their evidence and decide what they would actually use at trial. The judge had previously made the decision to combine Bryant’s case with Chris Chester’s case. Chester’s wife and daughter were also killed in the crash, and law enforcement also shared illustrative photos of this family. Bryant’s attorney had campaigned to consolidate the cases to “promote efficiency, reduce costs for everyone involved and reduce the risk of conflicting judgments,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

First responders confirmed sharing photos

Vanessa Bryant’s privacy invasion trial got off to a heartbreaking start. According to The Washington Post, on the first day in court, Vanessa’s attorney Luis Li played a video to the jury of Deputy Joey Cruz showing his phone to a bartender. As he later admitted, Cruz shared photos taken at the scene of the accident. When called to the booth, he explained that not only did he regret sharing the photos, he shouldn’t have had them in the first place. “I went too far, something I shouldn’t have done,” Cruz said.

Apparently he wasn’t the only one who took it too far. “[The photos] were shared by MPs playing video games,” Li noted in the opening statement, according to the AP. As reported by TMZ, LASD Assemblyman Michael Russell stated on the booth that he sent the pictures to another Assemblyman while they were playing.

Li’s opening statement showed how deeply affected Vanessa was by the actions of Los Angeles County law enforcement. “County employees took advantage of the accident,” the attorney said, per Rolling Stone. “They took and shared pictures of Kobe and Gianna as keepsakes. … They poured salt into a wound that would not heal.” The lawyer’s description of the horrific images and cavalier actions brought Vanessa to tears.

The examination results of digital forensics

In July 2022, California District Judge John Walter granted attorneys for Vanessa Bryant permission to make the argument that law enforcement destroyed evidence. Per Courthouse News, Bryant’s legal team stated in 2021, “By destroying the forensic trail, the defendants prevented the plaintiff from ever finding out how widely the photos circulated, how many other people saw photos of the remains of her loved ones and.” how many photos remain unsecured and vulnerable to going viral online.” Explaining why he chose to let Bryant’s legal team make the case, the judge said, “The plaintiffs have been denied direct evidence that gets to the heart of their case .”

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During the trial, digital forensics expert David Frescos stated that the investigation could not be completed. Per People, Frescos said nearly all of the 11 phones searched appeared to have been purchased after the crash. He also found Deputy Joey Cruz’s phone dead and the fire department returned a laptop with no hard drive. Three officials shared reports supporting the assessment of frescoes. Among them was Captain Matthew Vander Horck, who claimed he had been reassigned after resisting requests to have the photos deleted.

The county legal department, on the other hand, claimed that the photos were not deleted to destroy evidence, but rather to prevent further distribution of the images.

One captain was “uncomfortable” with instructions.

Vanessa Bryant’s legal team showed no mercy to the Los Angeles County officials who took a stand during the trial. Captain Matthew Vander Horck was among those who responded to the fatal helicopter crash. At the booth, Vander Horck admitted that the National Transportation Safety Board and the coroner are the only parties authorized to take photos of the aftermath of a helicopter crash, per CNN. Bryant’s attorney Luis Li asked the captain if this behavior might have contributed to a “loss of public confidence,” to which he agreed. Vander Horck also explained that according to county policy, MPs are not allowed to take photos of bodies at plane crash sites.

Vander Horck also revealed that the Sheriff Information Bureau had told him and other deputies to delete photos of the crash. According to Vander Horck, they said, “If no one finds out, they will not be punished. If the media finds out, they will be fired.” He went on to share that he disagreed with those orders. “I’ve been told that the sheriff … has full authority,” Vander Horck said in the courtroom. “I reiterated that I was uncomfortable with those directions…he told me that was the route we were going to take.”

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This is consistent with what Vander Horck said during an internal LASD investigation. Per Insider, after finding out they should delete the photos, he asked, “How do we know we’re not breaking some obscure federal law that we don’t know about?”

More questions about the deleted photos

Vanessa Bryant was disappointed by Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who assured her that her family’s privacy would be protected by Los Angeles County officials as they investigated the helicopter crash that resulted in the deaths of Kobe and Gianna Bryant.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Villanueva argued that Los Angeles County internal investigators successfully stopped the photos from being distributed after the crash. He explained that while officers passed around the graphic images, they never made it online because he ordered officers to delete the photos – a move that opened another legal can of worms. “I think they’ve all been erased. I’m pretty sure that’s true,” he said at the trial. After Vanessa’s legal team questioned him further, Villanueva made it clear that while he was fairly confident the photos had been deleted, he would not guarantee the photos were permanently gone. “God knows – that’s about it,” he explained.

Deputy Doug Johnson’s statement also caused a stir. According to the Los Angeles Times, Johnson was one of the officers who took photos of the aftermath of the crash. On the stand, the deputy claimed that he took a total of 25 photos on site. However, in his affidavit, Johnson said he took at least 100 pictures. As Insider noted, this was just a case of conflicting accounts from first responders.