A federal judge has upheld a $15 million verdict against police in a small Washington state city who shot and killed an unarmed black man, in a ruling that blistered the city’s lawyers for suggesting jurors ruled against law enforcement only because they didn’t want to be known for siding with white officers.
The ruling Thursday from U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein found that the jury had plenty of reasons to conclude that the shooting of Leonard Thomas during a 2013 SWAT operation in the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood was outrageous, The Seattle Times reported . Thomas was unarmed, hadn’t threatened anyone and was standing on his porch with his 4-year-old son, whom he had agreed to release, when a sniper killed him.
The defendants asked the judge to reduce or set aside the verdict and order a new trial. Lakewood’s lawyers argued that the jurors sided with Thomas’ family because they didn’t want to have to tell their friends they sided with white police who shot and killed a black man.
Rothstein said that suggestion was insulting and entirely fabricated. She noted that the defense helped pick the jurors, and “should it even matter … none of the jurors were African American.”
“The suggestion that this jury flouted its charge and colluded to hold government officials liable merely to advance the jurors’ individual reputations is not simply frivolous; it is insulting to our constitutional order,” she wrote.
She added: “And the notion that the American justice system can be characterized by an illegitimate solicitude for black victims of alleged police misconduct is so painfully ahistorical that one wonders whether Defendants advance this argument seriously.”
The incident began as a squabble between Thomas and his mother, Annalesa Thomas, on May 23, 2013, over where his son would spend the night. Thomas had called her because he had been drinking and was upset despondent over the death of a friend, but then got in an argument with her and slapped a cellphone out of her hand once she arrived.
Annalesa Thomas called police, who responded with a SWAT team, leading to a four-hour standoff during which Thomas repeatedly told police to leave him alone, that he was not armed and that his son was safe.
A hostage negotiator eventually persuaded him to let the child go home with his mother. As Thomas stood on the front porch with the boy, a car seat and a backpack full of clothes, police breached the back door with explosives. Startled, Thomas reached for his son, and the sniper shot him.
In addition to $8.6 million in compensatory damages, the jury imposed $6.5 million in punitive damages: $3?million against Police Chief Mike Zaro, who was in command that night and who gave the orders that led to the shooting; $2 million against Sgt. Brian Markert, the sniper; and $1.5?million against Officer Mike Wiley, who led the assault team that blew down the back door of Thomas’ house and killed the family dog, Baxter.
“Zaro and Wiley orchestrated an operation, executed in critical part by Markert, whereby an unarmed man who was negotiating the temporary release of his four-year-old son to the boy’s grandmother was subject to an explosive breach of his back door, shot in his abdomen, and then repeatedly punched in the face while he died, despite having never threatened violence to anyone that night,” Rothstein wrote.
Thomas’ mother, Annalesa Thomas, said she’s grateful for the judge’s ruling.
“Leonard’s justice prevailed,” she wrote in an email.