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A federal judge ruled on Monday that the identities of four Los Angeles County deputies accused of sharing photos from the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash scene be unsealed amid a lawsuit filed by Bryant's widow Vanessa Bryant.
U.S. District Judge John F. Walter rejected the arguments of lawyers for the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department that the names of the accused deputies should not be revealed to Bryant's legal team or the public, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
Walter cited public interest in allegations of police misconduct as outweighing concerns that the deputies would be subject to unwanted public scrutiny amid the high-profile case.
Judge: 'The public has a vested interest'
“Indeed where the case involves allegations of police misconduct, the public has a vested interest in assessing the truthfulness of the allegations of official misconduct," Walter wrote. ...
"Although the Court recognizes that this case has been the subject of public scrutiny and media attention and that the Deputy Defendants are legitimately concerned that they will encounter vitriol and social media attacks, such concerns, by themselves, are not sufficient to outweigh the public’s strong interest in access."
Sheriff Villanueva admitted that deputies took, shared photos
Bryant sued after photos allegedly taken by deputies and firefighters from the scene of the crash that killed Kobe, their daughter Gianna Bryant and seven others leaked. Bryant filed the lawsuit last May, less than four months after the January crash in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva previously acknowledged that deputies had taken and privately shared photos from the crash scene and were subsequently ordered to delete the photos. Villanueva's order prompted concerns of destruction of evidence amid alleged police misconduct.
Vanessa Bryant criticized department's response
Villanueva's order arrived after the Los Angeles Times reported that graphic photos from the crime scene were shared in personal settings. Bryant's lawsuit seeks damages for negligence, invasion of privacy, emotional distress and mental anguish. The suit criticized the department's response after Villanueva admitted that deputies had improperly shared photos.
“Rather than formally investigate the allegations to identify the extent of dissemination and contain the spread of the photos, Department leadership reportedly told deputies that they would face no discipline if they just deleted the photos," the initial filing reads.
“Mrs. Bryant was distressed to learn that the Department did not initiate a formal investigation until after the L.A. Times broke the story on or about February 28, and that the Department had taken few if any steps to contain the spread of the photos.”
Judge dismisses hacking concerns, citing department's own claims
Walter's ruling on Monday allows Bryant's legal team to name the accused deputies in the lawsuit and include details from an internal affairs investigation, according to the Times. The names had previously been blacked out in legal filings related to the lawsuit.
Walter also dismissed a county argument that revealing the deputies' identities would open up their devices to hackers and risk further dissemination of the photos. He pointed out that the department claimed that the photos had all been deleted.
"Moreover, Defendants’ concern that hackers may attempt to seek out and gain access to the individual deputies’ devices to locate any photographs and publish them is totally inconsistent with their position that such photographs no longer exist," Walter wrote.
Villanueva assured the public that the photos had been deleted in an interview with NBC4 last March.
“That was my No. 1 priority, was to make sure those photos no longer exist,” Villanueva said. “We identified the deputies involved, they came to the station on their own and had admitted they had taken them and they had deleted them. And we're content that those involved did that.”
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