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Deputy who took photos at Kobe Bryant crash scene also knelt on inmate’s head

  • June 18, 2022

between Bryant’s widow Vanessa and Los Angeles County.

Vanessa Bryant sued the county in September 2020, accusing county sheriff and fire department workers of improperly taking and sharing photos of human remains from the helicopter crash that killed the NBA legend and their daughter in January 2020.

In its defense, the county filed documents in court Friday that seek to prevent the jail incident involving Johnson from coming up in Bryant’s trial against the county scheduled for late July.

“The March 2021 County jail incident has nothing to do with this case, which centers on allegations that the County violated Plaintiff’s rights by taking and sharing photos of the January 26, 2020 helicopter crash,” the county stated in court documents. “Nonetheless, (Bryant) will not agree not to introduce evidence or argument about this separate incident.”

A judge could decide the matter before trial.

Bryant’s attorneys claim the county invaded her privacy and stated in court documents last year that Johnson took photos at the crash scene, including four that “closely focused on Kobe’s and (daughter) Gianna’s body parts.”

“Johnson’s descriptions of these photos are disturbingly graphic and horrific, and we do not repeat them here to protect the victims and their families, but they have been submitted under seal along with Coroner testimony linking two of Johnson’s photos to Kobe and another two to Gianna,” Bryant’s legal team stated in court documents last year.

The same documents stated Johnson then sent all of his photos from his personal cell phone to the personal cell phone of his friend Deputy Raul Versales, leading them to spread further.

The county said the photos were not posted online or “publicly disseminated” beyond county personnel except for an incident at a bar shortly after the crash.

“I documented the scene by taking photos,” Johnson wrote in a declaration filed in court last year. He estimated 10 photos contained victims’ remains and stated he did not know which victims were in the photos. He said he deleted the photos the same day.

The next big controversy involving Johnson came more than a year after the crash when he knelt on the head of an inmate after the inmate punched him in March 2021. But that incident didn’t come to light until March 2022, when the Los Angeles Times reported sheriff’s officials attempted to cover it up to avoid bad publicity.

Similarly, Bryant’s attorneys have accused the sheriff’s department of improperly destroying evidence in the photos case. The county disputes this, saying Sheriff Alex Villanueva helped prevent the photos from spreading by suggesting the photos be deleted.

The county stated in court records the jail incident is irrelevant to the photos lawsuit and would be highly prejudicial if it were allowed to be mentioned in the Bryant trial.

“The only reason Plaintiff would seek to elicit testimony about Deputy Johnson’s altercation with the inmate and LASD’s response is to impugn Deputy Johnson’s and Sheriff Villanueva’s character,” the county stated. “This is improper.”

Both sides issued statements Friday. 

“We look forward to responding in court,” Bryant’s attorney, Luis Li, said.

Skip Miller represents the county for the firm Miller Barondess. 

“The motion filed today will prevent the Plaintiff from prejudicing the jury by introducing unproven allegations against a witness that have nothing to do with the case,” Miller stated. “Because the opposing attorneys have not agreed to abide by the rules of evidence, we have filed this motion.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

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