SEATTLE — A federal jury in Seattle has awarded nearly $15 million to the family of an unarmed black man shot and killed by police in front of his young son near Tacoma, Washington, finding police had no reason to use deadly force.
The award includes $3 million in punitive damages against SWAT commander Mike Zaro during the 2013 standoff; another $1.5 million in punitive damages against Lakewood Officer Michael Wiley, who led an assault on the home and shot the family dog; and $2 million in punitive damages against Lakewood Sgt. Brian Markert, the sniper who shot Leonard Thomas from 90 feet away, The Seattle Times reported Friday (https://goo.gl/fHFgKc).
Thomas was shot outside his home in Fife, Washington, when he grabbed for his son after police used explosives to enter the home.
Jurors had been deliberating since Monday afternoon before returning the verdict Friday. One juror was dismissed during the week when she refused to deliberate.
The award is one of the largest in a police use-of-force and wrongful-death lawsuit in the state’s history.
Attorney Tiffany Cartwright, one of the lawyers representing Thomas’ parents and his now 9-year-old son, told the jury that nothing that the drunken, despondent, bipolar man did warranted a massive police response the night of May 23, 2013, for a misdemeanor, domestic-violence offense. Two armored vehicles and at least 27 officers responded, including the Pierce Metro SWAT team.
Based on photographs introduced in trial, the majority, if not all, of the officers were white. Attorneys for Thomas’ family said in court documents that the case was “steeped in race.”
Cartwright also told the jury the situation was “that close” to resolving peacefully when Zaro ordered an assault team to breach the back of the home using plastic explosives to blow down a door. They also shot the family dog five times.
Richard Jolley, lawyer for the officers and city defendants, contended that, despite Thomas’ promise at the end of four hours of negotiations that he would let the boy go — even taking a backpack of clothes and a car seat onto the front porch — he had no real intention of doing so.
“He had used his son as a bargaining chip,” said Jolley, who referred to the child as a hostage and questioned whether Thomas had planned to use the boy as a human shield. “Leonard left Officer Brian Markert no choice but to shoot,” he said.
The jury’s verdict indicated the seven-member panel rejected that argument completely. They found for the Thomas on every count.
Thomas’ parents and his estate alleged police violated his civil rights by using excessive force when they shot him, among other claims.
Jolley argued Thomas was known to police and that night was drunk, belligerent and likely intent on “suicide-by-cop.”
He said there was an “officer-safety alert” for Thomas in the police system after he had threatened suicide by police before, and he had a prior conviction for a drive-by shooting.
Cartwright said the explosion likely frightened Thomas, and he reached protectively for the boy and was killed for it. Witnesses said officers had to punch the dying man several times to pry the child out of his arms, and that his last words were, “Don’t hurt my boy.”
Police found no firearms in the house.
Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com