U.S. District Judge Barbara Rorthstein said there was ample evidence for the jury to conclude officers acted outrageously, unreasonably and with malice and callous indifference to the life of Leonard Thomas.
A federal judge has upheld a $15.1 million jury verdict against the city of Lakewood in Pierce County, Police Chief Mike Zaro and two other Lakewood officers for killing Leonard Thomas during a 2013 SWAT operation, taking the opportunity to scold the defense for suggesting the jury was motivated by fear of racial backlash if it exonerated the officers for killing an unarmed black man.
In a blistering 69-page order published Thursday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein rejected a string of post-trial motions by Lakewood, Zaro and two other officers — Sgt. Brian Markert and Officer Mike Wiley — asking her to either reduce or set aside the verdicts, grant the officers immunity from liability or order a new trial.
Instead, Rothstein swept aside the defense’s stubborn rejection of the verdict and insistence in the face of all evidence that the unarmed Thomas, a 30-year-old father who was having an emotional crisis, posed a threat to police or his 4-year-old son when he was shot by Markert, a SWAT sniper, after a four-hour standoff at Thomas’ home in Fife.
Rothstein found there was ample evidence for the jury to have concluded that Zaro and the others acted outrageously, unreasonably and with malice and callous indifference to the life of Thomas, or the impact their actions would have on his young son and parents.
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Thomas’ mother, Annalesa Thomas, said she’s grateful: “I am speechless and in tears and thankful beyond words,” she wrote in an email. “Leonard’s justice prevailed.”
Instead of trying to help Thomas, the judge wrote, every step police took that night made it more likely he would die.
But Rothstein reserved her sharpest comments to chastise the city’s lawyers for repeatedly implying that the case — and the jury’s verdict — was influenced by race.
In pleadings and during a Dec. 5 hearing, attorneys from the Seattle firm Keating Bucklin and McCormack — hired to represent the city — argued that community sentiment about police use of excessive force against African Americans improperly influenced the verdict.
At the hearing, attorney Richard Jolley told the court that “what the jury found here is that they weren’t going to go back to their individual communities and tell the people that they associate with, we found in favor of white cops that shot an unarmed black man.”
Rothstein took judicial umbrage at those remarks and the defense contention.
“Without any evidence — without any factual foundation whatsoever — defendants have chosen to malign one of this country’s most sacred civic institutions, the impartially selected petit jury,” she said.
“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.
“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,” she said.
She found the argument particularly vexing, she said, since it was the defense that successfully persuaded her to preclude showing prospective jurors a video about unconscious bias, that they helped pick and approved the jury, and “notwithstanding the fact, should it even matter, that none of the jurors were African American.”
In addition to $8.6 million in compensatory damages, the jury imposed $6.5 million in punitive damages: $3 million against Zaro, who was in command that night and who gave the orders that led to the shooting; $2 million against Markert, the sniper who shot Thomas in the stomach with a precision high-powered rifle; and $1.5 million against Wiley, who led an assault team that blew down the back door of Thomas’ house and killed the family dog, Baxter.
The city has argued that those damages would amount to a “financial death sentence” for the officers, since they are not covered by the city’s insurance.
“The jury’s conclusion that the Defendants’ escalation and use of force resulting in the death of Leonard exhibited malice, recklessness, or callous indifference to Plaintiffs’ rights was a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence presented to them,” the judge found.
The city of Lakewood declined to comment on the judge’s ruling.
“The city continues to have no comment as this is active litigation,” Brynn Grimley, communications manager for the city, said in an email.
Began as squabble
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 his mother because he had been drinking and was 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 for help. What she got was a full-blown SWAT call-out over what police said was, at worst, a misdemeanor domestic-violence assault. Over four hours, Thomas repeatedly told police to leave him alone, that he was not armed and that his son was safe.
A hostage negotiator had persuaded him to let the child go home with his mother and was standing on the front porch with the boy, a car seat and a backpack full of clothes when Zaro told the SWAT team not to allow him to go back inside with the child and gave Wiley approval to breach the back door with explosives.
The blast startled Thomas, and when he reached for the child, Markert shot him.
Later, Markert would file a report — with the help of an attorney — that referred to the child as a hostage more than 100 times and insisted Thomas was trying to strangle the child.
Rothstein said the jury clearly concluded otherwise.
“But [the child] was not a hostage, and Markert and the other officers here were not attempting to separate him from a kidnapper,” she said. “Rather, they were attempting to remove a child from his parent without the parent’s consent” and at the cost of the parent’s life.
If the jury acted with emotion, Rothstein wrote, it was not out of prejudice against the officers but at outrage over what they did.
”Defendants maintain that no facts in this case rise to the level of outrage,” she said. “The jury had good reason to disagree.”
“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.”