Jury in $15M verdict for Lakewood police shooting of black man feared backlash, lawyers say

Attorneys for the city of Lakewood, police Chief Mike Zaro and other officers facing a $15.1 million civil-rights jury verdict for the death of an unarmed African-American man are challenging the jurors, suggesting they feared community backlash if they found for the police.

“In this racially charged situation, they weren’t going to their individual communities and say that ‘We found in favor of white cops who killed an unarmed black man,’ ” attorney Richard Jolley told U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein during a hearing Tuesday in Seattle.

Jolley and the defense have asked the court to reduce the verdict in the death of Leonard Thomas by more than $12 million and find that Zaro and two other police officers, facing a total of $6.5 million in punitive damages, are immune from any liability.

They contended the law extends immunity to police when their actions are not “plainly incompetent” and they aren’t knowingly violating a law or constitutional right.

Seattle lawyer Tim Ford, who represented Thomas’ family, was emotional in his defense of the verdict and the jury during the hearing.

“This jury’s been attacked so much in this case,” he said, reminding the judge that Lakewood’s lawyers helped select the jurors and removed the only African American from the jury pool.

Ford asked Rothstein to recall that she granted a defense request that the jury not be allowed to see a court video on unconscious bias that routinely is shown to other juries, “then claim unconscious bias against them.”

“They can’t just keep saying things and ignoring what the jury did,” Ford said. “This jury was not a runaway. They did not believe anything the defendants told them. They found this behavior is intolerable in a civilized community.”

The judge took the matter under advisement.

During the hour-long hearing, Jolley and the defense stuck to the narrative that drove the defense during the 10-day trial in July: that Thomas was violent, dangerous and holding his 4-year-old son hostage during a four-hour standoff in May 2013.

They say Thomas was moving to harm the child when he was shot by Lakewood police Sgt. Brian Markert, a SWAT team sniper.

In pleadings filed before the hearing, the defense said Rothstein had allowed the plaintiffs to play the “race card.”

As a result, the defense contends, it was “…(S)addled 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.”

The verdict the seven-member jury awarded apparently was the largest of its kind in the Western District of Washington.

Jurors found in favor of Thomas’ family on every count, awarding $8.6 million for claims ranging from the officers killing the family dog to using explosives to level a back door and the “unlawful seizure” of Thomas himself by killing him.

Almost half of the money was awarded to Thomas’ now 8-year-old son, who had been pulled from his father’s arms as he lay dying.

Thomas’ last words were, “Don’t hurt my son.”

Moreover, jurors awarded $6.5 million in punitive damages, including $3 million against Zaro, who was SWAT commander that night, $2 million against Markert and $1.5 million against Officer Mike Wiley, who led an assault team.

The jury was instructed that it could award punitive damages only if it found their actions were “malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.”

The incident began as a spat between Thomas, 30, and his mother and escalated into a siege involving 29 heavily armed officers and an armored vehicle.

Thomas, who was bipolar, intoxicated and despondent over the death of a close friend, retreated into the house with his son and wouldn’t come out.

Before police arrived, Thomas and his mother had argued and he slapped the cellphone out of her hand while she was on the phone with police dispatch.

During the ensuing standoff, Thomas didn’t threaten police, the child or himself and was not armed, evidence and testimony at trial showed.

The evidence showed Thomas had agreed to let the boy go home with his mother and had retrieved clothing and a car seat when Zaro ordered Wiley and an assault team to breach the rear of the home with explosives and told the SWAT team not to let him back inside with the child.

Thomas’ lawyers say Markert killed Thomas when, startled by the blast, he reached for the boy.