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Widow of Kobe Bryant was awarded $16 million in the trial over crash photos


A court victory for the family of late basketball star Kobe Bryant. A judge has ordered Los Angeles County to pay $31 million for the handling of graphic photos of the helicopter crash that killed nine people in 2020, including Bryant and his daughter, Gigi. Bryant's widow, Vanessa, will receive $16 million. The other plaintiff, Chris Chester, who lost his wife and daughter in the crash, will be awarded 15 million. Los Angeles Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian was in court, and she joins us now. Alene, this case is about how first responders shared photos of human remains. What did these police and fire officers do with the photos that the jury determined was so wrong?

ALENE TCHEKMEDYIAN: Yeah. That's a good question. So deputies and firefighters ended up hiking up to the hillside where the crash occurred and taking photos. And then we heard in the trial that they shared them amongst each other. We know that they were shown by a deputy to a bartender in Norwalk. They were shown among firefighters and their spouses during an awards gala at - in Universal City in what amounted to, according to one witness, to a party trick. They were passed around from one deputy to another as the pair played video games. And so during this 11-day trial, we heard from, you know, all these deputies about what they did. And they tried to explain why. And the jury decided that what they did was inappropriate.

MARTINEZ: How was this found out?

TCHEKMEDYIAN: So actually, it was an LA Times article investigation that published about a month after the crash and a month after this happened. At the bar in Norwalk, where the deputy showed photos, the bartender that saw them ended up going to another table and telling the patrons there about what he had seen. And one of the people that was sitting at the table was so disturbed that he filed a complaint to the sheriff's department. And so the sheriff's department got that complaint the next day. They ended up going down to the bar, getting surveillance footage of what happened the night before and seeing the deputy sharing the photos with the bartender. And one controversial thing that happened was that instead of, you know, launching a formal investigation and, you know, taking all the deputies' phones and investigating it, the sheriff, Alex Villanueva, offered all the deputies that were involved in this scandal amnesty. He told them if they came clean and deleted the photos that he - they would not be punished.

MARTINEZ: Alene, you've been reporting in Los Angeles, a lot on the sheriff's department for a while now. What did lawyers say about this case relates to the culture among first responders in LA?

TCHEKMEDYIAN: So the jury decided that there was a culture problem in the sheriff's department with sharing these types of photos among law enforcement officers. There was an expert who testified about death books that cops keep. And even the sheriff himself said in media interviews that were played for jurors that this was a problem in law enforcement, that they sort of collect photos of crime scenes and accident scenes as sort of a scrapbook of their careers.

MARTINEZ: The photos, thankfully, have never been seen publicly. They were shared within their circles. Was Vanessa Bryant worried? And the others in this case, were they - other plaintiffs, were they worried that someday they could be made public?

TCHEKMEDYIAN: Yeah, that was the biggest concern for them. So you know, lawyers and the county has argued that the photos were never publicly disseminated. They were never posted online or published in the press or seen by the plaintiffs. But Ms. Bryant and Mr. Chester, the other plaintiffs, are arguing that we have no idea how widely they were spread because the county didn't do a thorough job investigating that. And now their biggest fear is that one day, they'll wake up and see it on social media.

MARTINEZ: That's LA Times reporter Alene Tchekmedyian. Thanks a lot for joining us.

TCHEKMEDYIAN: Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF NELS CLINE'S "THE BOND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.