A federal jury unanimously decided that police violated the rights of a 30-year-old black man when a family argument escalated into an attack during which the man was shot by a SWAT sniper in front of his young son.
According to the Seattle Times, on Friday, the jury decided to award the family of Leonard Thomas more than $15 million, in one of the largest police-deadly-force verdicts in state history, against the Washington cities of Lakewood and Fife, as well as several SWAT officers.
The award included punitive damages for some $6.5 million, including $3 million against Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro, who was the SWAT commander that fateful night; $2 million against Lakewood Police Sgt. Brian Markert, who was the sniper who pulled the trigger; and $1.5 million against Pierce County Metro SWAT assault-team leader Mike Wiley, who is also a Lakewood police officer.
Wiley, the Times reports, described the sniper bullet that killed Thomas on the front porch of his Fife home in 2013 while he held his 4-year-old son in his arms as a “frickin’ million-dollar shot.”
In the verdict, which came after a three-week trial in U.S. District Court and more than three days of deliberations, the jury ruled in favor of the Thomas family and estate on every count, including unreasonable seizure, excessive force, deprivation of family relationship, unreasonably killing the family dog, false arrest, negligent investigation, using explosives to breach home and causing severe emotional distress.
The jury awarded compensatory damages totaling $4 million to Thomas’ son, $1.885 million to his estate, and $1.375 million each to his mother and father.
“I’m shaking, to be honest,” said Annalesa Thomas, Leonard Thomas’ mother, who is now the guardian of his son. “I am so grateful to this jury and this verdict. Hopefully, this will make a change in policy and protocol. Lethal force should always be the last option.”
Tim Ford, one of the attorneys for the family, said the verdict “feels pretty good.”
“This verdict shows that Leonard Thomas’ life mattered,” Ford said.
The incident all started when Annalesa Thomas called the police on June 23, 2013, after she had gone to Leonard Thomas’ home to get his child. Leonard Thomas, who had been sober for a year at that point, had started drinking again after the death of a childhood friend and had not been taking his medication for bipolar disorder.
Mother and son then got into an argument, which culminated in Leonard Thomas slapping the cellphone out of his mother’s hand while she was on the phone with police dispatch.
In response to what would have been a misdemeanor assault, officers responded by calling out SWAT, which, in turn, responded with 29 heavily armed officers and two armored assault vehicles.
The Times reports:
A four-hour standoff ensued, during which Thomas, 30, refused to come out of the house and was belligerent and verbally abusive toward officers; he was not armed and never threatened anyone, according to testimony.
Negotiators eventually convinced Thomas to let the boy go home with his grandmother. Thomas was on the front porch with a car seat and a backpack with the boy’s clothes when Zaro told officers not to let him back into the house with the boy and then ordered an explosive breach of the home’s back door by Wiley’s assault team.
Officers used plastic explosives to flatten the back door, shot the family dog, Baxter, at least five times, and rushed into the house. Other heavily armed officers charged the home as well.
Thomas, startled by the blast, gunshots and the sight of officers running at him, grabbed for his son and Markert shot him in the belly from 90 feet away with a .308-caliber rifle, claiming Thomas was trying to strangle the boy.
Thomas bled to death while officers dragged him and his son apart. According to testimony, his last words were “Don’t hurt my boy.”
In the end, Zaro oversaw an internal investigation into the shooting and cleared Markert of any wrongdoing. Markert, for his part, did not make a statement about the shooting until nearly two weeks after. When he finally did produce a statement, it was a 15-page document that was put together with his attorney using information given to him by Zaro. In the statement he called the young child a “hostage” 113 times.
Throughout the trial, Richard Jolley, the lead attorney for the officers and cities, claimed that Thomas was using his son as a “bargaining” chip and called the child a “hostage.” Thomas, he said, was known to police and was drunk that night and likely intended on “suicide-by-cop.”
The family accused Zaro of escalating the confrontation to what it became even after negotiators persuaded Leonard Thomas to let the 4-year-old go home with his grandmother.
Leonard Thomas’ father, Frederick Thomas, was even arrested that night after he became concerned and tried to get into the house to speak to his son. The jury found his arrest unnecessary. Frederick Thomas learned about his son’s death while in jail the following morning.
Read more at the Seattle Times.