Attorneys for Lakewood police are asking a federal judge to throw out a $15.1 million civil-rights verdict imposed by a jury over the 2013 sniper-shooting death of an unarmed black man, arguing the court erred by allowing his lawyers to “play the race card.”
In four motions filed last week, the attorneys for the Lakewood department, Police Chief Michael Zaro and two other key SWAT team members — Lakewood Sgt. Brian Markert and Officer Mike Wiley — asked U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein to reject the seven-member jury’s verdict and find in favor of the city and officers “as a matter of law,” arguing jurors erred after a 15-day trial and four days of deliberations.
“Defendants were saddled with the impossible burden of defending not only this case but also the ubiquitous but unsubstantiated narrative that police are allegedly targeting African Americans for excessive force,” wrote attorney Jeremy Culumber. “This reality alone justifies reducing the jury’s damages awarded to a more reasonable figure.”
If the court declines to grant the city a new trial, Culumber argued that Rothstein should reduce the amount of damages by more than $12 million.
The wrongful-death and civil-rights lawsuit was filed by the family of Leonard Thomas, who was killed by a SWAT sniper in May 2013 after a four-hour standoff at his Fife home. He was reaching for his 4-year-old son when he was killed.
Tim Ford, who represented Thomas’ parents, said during the trial the case was “steeped” in race and claimed that police attorneys had fought to keep that out of the case. The defense successfully persuaded Rothstein to not allow potential jurors to see a short video about unconscious bias because it mentions race several times.
Attorneys for Lakewood police argue in the motions that Thomas’ attorneys made “thinly veiled” references to the Black Lives Matter movement during the trial and unduly influenced the jury.
At one point, Thomas’ attorneys argued that “Leonard’s background and his life mattered.” Later, someone argued, “These lives do matter, and these SWAT teams and police officers need to know that you don’t use deadly force when it’s not justified.”
Culumber argued that allowing Thomas’ lawyers to pursue these “unsupported, racially based arguments” warrants a new trial.
“In this racially charged environment, the defendants … already faced a significant disadvantage.”
The verdict included $6.5 million in total punitive damages against incident commander Zaro ($3 million), Markert ($2 million) and Wiley ($1.5 million), for which the motions say they could be personally responsible since punitive damages are not covered by the city’s insurance.
The verdict is believed to be the largest civil-rights police-shooting verdict in the Western District of Washington and stemmed from the militarized police response to a family argument at Thomas’ home on a cul-de-sac in Fife in May 2013.
Lakewood’s attorneys believe the court made a mistake by not allowing the defense to present evidence about a kitchen knife found in a bedroom where Thomas had spent time during the standoff. They argued the knife contradicted the claims that he was not armed.
They also wanted to be able to tell the jury they found a handheld crossbow in the home, but there were no bolts (arrows) to fire from it.
No one ever saw Thomas with a knife or the crossbow, and the judge ruled before trial that those items were irrelevant.
Leonard’s mother, Annalesa Thomas, called police on the night of June 23, 2013, after she had gone to her son’s home to pick up her then-4-year-old grandson. Thomas had been drinking and had not been taking medication for bipolar disorder, according to testimony at trial.
Thomas argued with his mother and he slapped the cellphone out of her hand while she was on the phone with police dispatch.
While only a misdemeanor assault at most, police summoned a SWAT team, which responded with 29 heavily armed officers and two armored assault vehicles, one of which was driven onto Thomas’ front yard.
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.
Thomas had agreed to let his son go to his grandmother and was on the porch with the child’s backpack and car seat when Zaro ordered a SWAT assault team to use explosives to flatten a back door. An assault team shot and killed the family dog and then flooded the home from rear.
When Thomas reached for his son, Sgt. Markert shot him. In a statement prepared over 11 days with the help of an attorney and information provided by Zaro privately, Markert said that Thomas had grabbed his son around the neck and was choking him.
Throughout the pleadings filed last week, the city maintained the narrative the jury rejected at trial: that Thomas was using his son as a human shield and that Markert had reason to believe the boy’s life was in danger when he pulled the trigger.