Jury awards plaintiffs $31M in lawsuit over Kobe Bryant crash photos

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    By Jason Kravarik, Natasha ChenEric Levenson and Amir Vera, CNN

    Updated 11:31 AM ET, Thu August 25, 2022

    From left, Natalia Bryant, her mother, Vanessa Bryant, and family friend Sydney Leroux leave the courthouse in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

    From left, Natalia Bryant, her mother, Vanessa Bryant, and family friend Sydney Leroux leave the courthouse in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

    Los Angeles (CNN)A federal jury awarded $31 million in damages to Kobe Bryant’s widow and her co-plaintiff on Thursday after finding the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s and Fire departments liable for infringing on their constitutional rights for taking and sharing gruesome photos of the January 2020 helicopter crash that left nine people dead.

    Vanessa Bryant was awarded $16 million in damages and Christopher Chester was awarded $15 million.

    The verdict stems from photos taken by LA County deputies and firefighters in the immediate aftermath of the crash that killed Kobe Bryant, the legendary Los Angeles Lakers player, his daughter Gianna, Chester’s wife, Sarah, his daughter Payton and five others. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the helicopter pilot pushed the limits of bad weather flying rules before he crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, California.

    The photos included not just wreckage of the helicopter but close-up images of the mangled bodies of those killed.

    https://9a3b588213602229e9b812a9622dc4af.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

    Bryant and Chester argued that the photos of their loved ones caused emotional distress and violated their privacy. Each testified to living in fear the photos may surface, despite the county’s assertion the pictures had been destroyed.

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant celebrates after Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic. The Lakers won 99-86 for their 15th title and first since 2002. Bryant had 30 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists as the Lakers completed a four-games-to-one victory in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant holds his daughter, Gianna, after the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant rides the Matterhorn Bobsleds with Jonathan Guerrero, 4, and his father, David Guerrero of Pomona, California, at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 2009. The Guerreros were among thousands of Lakers fans who turned out for a special Disneyland parade honoring the Lakers’ 15th World Championship.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    US President Barack Obama chats with Bryant at a Boys and Girls Club in Washington in 2010. Obama welcomed the Lakers to honor their 2009-2010 season and their second consecutive NBA championship.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant celebrates after defeating the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals in Los Angeles.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant joins a teaching session for fans during a 2011 promotional tour of South Korea at Korea University in Seoul.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant is injured in the second half while playing the Golden State Warriors in 2013. The injury took him out of the rest of the season.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    From left, Kevin Durant, Lebron James and Bryant pose with their gold medals at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    LeBron James guards Bryant during a 2016 game between the Cavaliers and Lakers in Los Angeles.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Magic Johnson hugs Bryant before the final game of his career in 2016.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant runs up the court during his final game in 2016. The Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz 101-96. Bryant scored 60 points in the game.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    From left, Peyton Mannin, Abby Wambach and Bryant accept the Icon Award during the 2016 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, right, gestures while posing with Bryant alongside members of his family and city officials in 2016. The city council announced August 24 as Kobe Bryant Day. The date commemorates the numbers Bryant wore as a Laker: 8 and 24.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant walks to center court at his jersey retirement ceremony at halftime of a basketball game in 2017.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant and filmmaker Glen Keane accept the 2018 Oscar for best animated short film. “Dear Basketball” was based on a letter Bryant wrote in 2015 announcing his retirement from basketball.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant posted this photo to Instagram on Mother’s Day in 2019. He and his wife, Vanessa, had four daughters: Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri, who was born in June. “Happy Mother’s Day @vanessabryant,” Bryant wrote. “We love you and thank you for all that you do for our family. You are the foundation of all that we hold dear. I love you #mybaby #lioness #mamabear #queenmamba”

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant and his daughter Gianna attend a Los Angeles Lakers game against the Atlanta Hawks in 2019.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant listens to the National Anthem prior to a 2019 Lakers game against the Atlanta Hawks in Los Angeles.

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    Kobe Bryant, pictured in 2007, spent his entire 20-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Kobe Bryant, pictured in 2007, spent his entire 20-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant’s youth basketball team poses for a picture in the early 1990s in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant dunks the ball in his high school gym in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, during a practice in 1996.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant jokes with the media as he holds his Los Angeles Lakers jersey at a news conference in Inglewood, California, in 1996.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant eyes the basket during the 1997 NBA Slam Dunk contest in Cleveland. Bryant was the youngest player to win the contest.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls eyes the basket as he is guarded by Bryant during a 1998 game in Los Angeles.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant sits on the sidelines during the Euro ABC camp in Berlin in 1999.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Shaquille O’Neal and Byrant sit on the bench before a game in 1999 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant hugs his fiancee, Vanessa Laine, in the locker room in Los Angeles after the Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the 2000 NBA Finals to win the series 4-2. Bryant later married Laine, and they had four children.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant goes in for a slam dunk against the New Jersey Nets in January 2001.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant appears on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” at NBC Studios in 2001.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant stands for the National Anthem at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    President Bush holds up a Lakers jersey that Bryant gave him at a ceremony for the 2001 NBA World Champions in the East Room of the White House in January 2002.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, attend a news conference at the Staples Center in 2003. The NBA star proclaimed his innocence after facing sexual assault charges for the alleged rape of a 19-year-old Colorado woman. The charges were later dropped. “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” Bryant later said in a statement.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant goes up for a shot between the Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce, left, and Al Jefferson during a 2006 game in Los Angeles.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant kisses his daughter Natalia during a 2008 photo session at his home in Newport Beach, California.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant jumps for a rebound against the Denver Nuggets during Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant celebrates after Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic. The Lakers won 99-86 for their 15th title and first since 2002. Bryant had 30 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists as the Lakers completed a four-games-to-one victory in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant holds his daughter, Gianna, after the Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant rides the Matterhorn Bobsleds with Jonathan Guerrero, 4, and his father, David Guerrero of Pomona, California, at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 2009. The Guerreros were among thousands of Lakers fans who turned out for a special Disneyland parade honoring the Lakers’ 15th World Championship.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    US President Barack Obama chats with Bryant at a Boys and Girls Club in Washington in 2010. Obama welcomed the Lakers to honor their 2009-2010 season and their second consecutive NBA championship.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant celebrates after defeating the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals in Los Angeles.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant joins a teaching session for fans during a 2011 promotional tour of South Korea at Korea University in Seoul.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant is injured in the second half while playing the Golden State Warriors in 2013. The injury took him out of the rest of the season.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    From left, Kevin Durant, Lebron James and Bryant pose with their gold medals at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    LeBron James guards Bryant during a 2016 game between the Cavaliers and Lakers in Los Angeles.

    Hide Caption

    26 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Magic Johnson hugs Bryant before the final game of his career in 2016.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant runs up the court during his final game in 2016. The Lakers defeated the Utah Jazz 101-96. Bryant scored 60 points in the game.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    From left, Peyton Mannin, Abby Wambach and Bryant accept the Icon Award during the 2016 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, right, gestures while posing with Bryant alongside members of his family and city officials in 2016. The city council announced August 24 as Kobe Bryant Day. The date commemorates the numbers Bryant wore as a Laker: 8 and 24.

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant walks to center court at his jersey retirement ceremony at halftime of a basketball game in 2017.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant and filmmaker Glen Keane accept the 2018 Oscar for best animated short film. “Dear Basketball” was based on a letter Bryant wrote in 2015 announcing his retirement from basketball.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant posted this photo to Instagram on Mother’s Day in 2019. He and his wife, Vanessa, had four daughters: Natalia, Gianna, Bianka and Capri, who was born in June. “Happy Mother’s Day @vanessabryant,” Bryant wrote. “We love you and thank you for all that you do for our family. You are the foundation of all that we hold dear. I love you #mybaby #lioness #mamabear #queenmamba”

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant and his daughter Gianna attend a Los Angeles Lakers game against the Atlanta Hawks in 2019.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant listens to the National Anthem prior to a 2019 Lakers game against the Atlanta Hawks in Los Angeles.

    Hide Caption

    35 of 35

    Kobe Bryant, pictured in 2007, spent his entire 20-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Kobe Bryant, pictured in 2007, spent his entire 20-year NBA career with the Los Angeles Lakers.

    Hide Caption

    1 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant’s youth basketball team poses for a picture in the early 1990s in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

    Hide Caption

    2 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant dunks the ball in his high school gym in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania, during a practice in 1996.

    Hide Caption

    3 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant jokes with the media as he holds his Los Angeles Lakers jersey at a news conference in Inglewood, California, in 1996.

    Hide Caption

    4 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant eyes the basket during the 1997 NBA Slam Dunk contest in Cleveland. Bryant was the youngest player to win the contest.

    Hide Caption

    5 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls eyes the basket as he is guarded by Bryant during a 1998 game in Los Angeles.

    Hide Caption

    6 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant sits on the sidelines during the Euro ABC camp in Berlin in 1999.

    Hide Caption

    7 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Shaquille O’Neal and Byrant sit on the bench before a game in 1999 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

    Hide Caption

    8 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant hugs his fiancee, Vanessa Laine, in the locker room in Los Angeles after the Lakers defeated the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the 2000 NBA Finals to win the series 4-2. Bryant later married Laine, and they had four children.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant goes in for a slam dunk against the New Jersey Nets in January 2001.

    Hide Caption

    10 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant appears on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” at NBC Studios in 2001.

    Hide Caption

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    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant stands for the National Anthem at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

    Hide Caption

    12 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    President Bush holds up a Lakers jersey that Bryant gave him at a ceremony for the 2001 NBA World Champions in the East Room of the White House in January 2002.

    Hide Caption

    13 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant and his wife, Vanessa, attend a news conference at the Staples Center in 2003. The NBA star proclaimed his innocence after facing sexual assault charges for the alleged rape of a 19-year-old Colorado woman. The charges were later dropped. “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” Bryant later said in a statement.

    Hide Caption

    14 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant goes up for a shot between the Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce, left, and Al Jefferson during a 2006 game in Los Angeles.

    Hide Caption

    15 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant kisses his daughter Natalia during a 2008 photo session at his home in Newport Beach, California.

    Hide Caption

    16 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant jumps for a rebound against the Denver Nuggets during Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals during the 2009 NBA Playoffs.

    Hide Caption

    17 of 35

    Photos: Kobe Bryant’s life in pictures

    Bryant celebrates after Game 5 of the 2009 NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic. The Lakers won 99-86 for their 15th title and first since 2002. Bryant had 30 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists as the Lakers completed a four-games-to-one victory in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.

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    Jurors listened to 11 days worth of graphic and emotional testimony. Witnesses during the trial included a deputy who said he showed images from the scene to two people at a bar; another deputy who said he shared photos while playing a video game; a deputy who air-dropped scene photos to an unidentified person in firefighting gear; a fire captain who took similar photos but turned in a department device missing its hard drive; and a fire official who showed the images to other personnel during an awards ceremony cocktail hour.

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    The federal jury found both the Sheriff’s and Fire Departments lacked proper policies and training which caused the violation of rights. The only plaintiff claim not supported by jurors was in a finding that the county fire department was not liable for any long-standing widespread practice or custom of taking illicit photos. The sheriff’s department was found liable for the same issue.

    Vanessa Bryant testifies that she suffers panic attacks, anxiety since learning of shared crash scene photos

    Vanessa Bryant testifies that she suffers panic attacks, anxiety since learning of shared crash scene photos

    Immediately after the verdict was read, Bryant hugged her attorneys. As she continued to cry, Bryant then tearfully embraced her daughter Natalia in the front row. She left the courthouse without making a statement, but did post a picture of her, Kobe Bryant and their daughter Gianna on Instagram with the caption: “All for you! I love you! JUSTICE for Kobe and Gigi!”

    “This case has always been about accountability,” her attorney Luis Li said in a statement. “And now the jury has unanimously spoken.”

    Attorney Mira Hashmall, who led outside counsel for LA County, released a statement shortly after the verdict.

    “While we disagree with the jury’s findings as to the County’s liability, we believe the monetary award shows that jurors didn’t believe the evidence supported the Plaintiffs’ request of $75 million for emotional distress,” Hashmall said. “We will be discussing next steps with our client. Meanwhile, we hope the Bryant and Chester families continue to heal from their tragic loss.”

    In September 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an invasion-of-privacy bill called the “Kobe Bryant Act” that makes it illegal for first responders to share photos of a dead person at a crime scene “for any purpose other than an official law enforcement purpose.” The misdemeanor crime is punishable by up to $1,000 per violation.

    Coincidentally, the decision was announced on “Kobe Bryant Day,” or August 24, which was created by Los Angeles in 2016 and Orange County in 2020 to honor the Lakers star’s two jersey numbers, 8 and 24. The Lakers have retired both numbers.

    Defense wanted to separate emotions from legality

    Deliberations began Wednesday shortly after an attorney for Los Angeles County argued that the trial is a “pictures case with no pictures,” noting that the gruesome photos of human remains have never actually been seen by the public — or even the plaintiffs.

    “No pictures is good. No pictures means no public dissemination … no risk of other people making mistakes,” Hashmall, the county attorney, said in closing arguments of the trial.

    In an emotional rebuttal, 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.

    Earlier in the trial, Kobe Bryant's widow leaves court in tears after moment in court

    Earlier in the trial, Kobe Bryant’s widow leaves court in tears after moment in court 02:35

    During 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 wrestled 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 bar patron and 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.

    Jury selected in Vanessa Bryant's case against LA County over photos of Kobe's helicopter crash

    Jury selected in Vanessa Bryant’s case against LA County over photos of Kobe’s helicopter crash

    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 argued 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.”

    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 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….There’s another group of people who saw something terribly wrong. You…Your turn to stand up and deliver accountability.”

    CNN’s Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.

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