A federal court jury in Seattle has awarded nearly $15 million to the family and 9-year-old son of an unarmed African-American man who a SWAT sniper shot and killed in front of the child in Fife, finding police had no reason to use deadly force.
According to the court clerk and Tim Ford, one of the lawyer’s representing Leonard Thomas’ family, the award includes:
▪ $3 million in punitive damages against current Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro, who was the SWAT commander during the 2013 standoff.
▪ $1.5 million in punitive damages against Lakewood police Officer Michael Wiley, who led an assault on the home and shot the family’s dog.
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▪ $2 million in punitive damages against Lakewood police Sgt. Brian Markert, the sniper who shot Thomas from 90 feet away
Thomas was shot outside his home when he grabbed for his son after Wiley’s team used explosives to enter the home. Attorneys for his family contended Thomas was about to hand the child over to his grandmother.
The award is one of the largest ever in a police use-of-force and wrongful death lawsuit in the state’s history.
Jurors had been deliberating since Monday before returning the verdict Friday. One juror was dismissed earlier this week when she refused to deliberate.
Attorney Tiffany Cartwright, one of the lawyers representing Thomas’ parents and his son, told the jury in opening statements that nothing that the drunken, despondent, bipolar man did warranted the 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, most, if not all, of the officers were white, and attorneys for Thomas’ family alleged in court documents that the case was “steeped in race.”
Moreover, Cartwright told the jury the situation was “that close” to resolving peacefully when Zaro, who was assistant chief at the time, 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.
Attorneys for the officers and city defendants told the jury in their opening statements that Thomas was playing games with police and using his son as a “pawn.”
Lawyer Richard Jolley told the jury that, despite Thomas’ promise at the end of four tense 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. They found for the Thomas family on every count.
Thomas’ parents and his estate alleged police violated his civil rights by using excessive force when they shot him. The lawsuit made several other claims, including outrage and loss of companionship.
The family alleged that Zaro moved toward a deadly confrontation even as the negotiators had persuaded Thomas to let the child go home with his grandmother.
But Jolley said Zaro’s decisions as SWAT commander were not why Markert fired his rifle. Jolley told the jury Markert saw Thomas grab his son by the throat when the explosives went off and believed the child was in danger.
Thomas, Jolley argued, 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.