Attorneys for Kobe Bryant’s widow asked a judge to punish Los Angeles County for the alleged destruction of almost all evidence that sheriff’s deputies snapped and shared photos taken at the site of the helicopter crash last year that killed the NBA legend, the couple’s 13-year-old daughter and seven others.
According to Vanessa Bryant’s pretrial motion for sanctions, members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department who were among first responders at the crash on Jan. 26, 2020, improperly destroyed cellphone photos at the direction of Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who knew he was required to preserve such potential evidence.
“Yet that is exactly what Sheriff Villanueva himself ordered department personnel to do after the department received a citizen’s complaint that a sheriff’s deputy was showing photos of the crash site at a bar in Norwalk. That order was highly irregular — unprecedented in deputies’ experience — and out of the chain of command. When a captain complained, the sheriff demoted him.”
Skip Miller, outside counsel for Los Angeles County, responded that the plaintiff’s request for non-monetary sanctions is a strategic move.
“While the county continues to have the deepest sympathy for the grief Ms. Bryant has suffered, the request by her lawyers for sanctions is an attempt to distract attention from the fact that none of the routine investigative photos taken by county employees have ever been publicly disseminated,” he said in a statement provided to City News Service.
Calling the alleged destruction of the photos part of a county “cover- up,” Bryant’s lawyers allege that, after Bryant’s lawsuit was filed, nine deputies “discarded or wiped devices that they used to take, share or view” crash scene photos, including human remains.
“By doing so, those public officials deprived this court, the jury, and the community they have promised to protect the ability to learn who they texted pictures to, whether photos were uploaded to the cloud, downloaded to other devices, shared by Airdrop, sent by instant messaging, or transferred by any of the many other ways photos can be shared,” the motions alleges.
“And those actions broke the investigative chain, making it impossible to determine who else may have received and then forwarded those photos.”
The plaintiffs want the judge overseeing the lawsuit to rule in Bryant’s favor at summary judgment or issue an order precluding the county from presenting any theory denying that the photos were shared or disputing that the photos depicted the crash victims.
The county’s response, included in the motion, lists the personnel who had access to crash scene photos that were taken as part of the investigation and denies there was any public dissemination.
“County personnel worked tirelessly to secure a massive crash site, identify the victims, and notify the families — and, as Bryant herself requested, to make sure none of their photos ever became public,” county lawyers wrote. “And none have.”
The response says that the sheriff’s department “was shocked when, on Jan. 29, 2020, a citizen reported that he heard a deputy trainee had shown crash site photos on his phone to someone in a bar. Sheriff Villanueva thereupon directed his personnel to begin an immediate inquiry and make sure no photos got outside the department.
“Sheriff Villanueva was keeping his promise to Bryant by making sure no photos got out. The deputies, on and before Jan. 30, 2020, deleted the photos from their phones — months before this dispute.”
The sheriff’s department quickly opened an investigation and within days had interviewed 28 deputies, reserve deputies, sergeants and civilian volunteers, the county said.
“The department determined that all personnel who had taken, shared, or received crash site photos had, in fact, deleted them,” according to county attorneys. “No one had sent a photo to anyone outside LASD. To this day, and despite media hyperbole about `leaked’ photos, no County crash site photos have ever been publicly disseminated.”
Bryant’s widow alleges she and her family suffered severe emotional distress after discovering that sheriff’s deputies allegedly snapped and shared gruesome photos of the helicopter crash scene, and is seeking substantial damages.
The motion is expected to be discussed at an evidentiary hearing on Nov. 29 in Los Angeles federal court.