Jurors will decide whether the police departments for Lakewood and Fife acted within their policies when a SWAT team shot and killed a drunken and despondent man as he held his 4-year-old son during a standoff.
Prospective jurors in a federal civil-rights trial over the deadly shooting of an unarmed African-American man in Fife may be allowed to see a court video about unconscious racial bias, a judge ruled Wednesday, overturning an earlier decision to grant an objection to the video by lawyers for the officers involved.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein also clarified an earlier order to say that evidence of racism will be allowed into the trial, if it exists.
Rothstein gave lawyers for the family of Leonard Thomas until Thursday to respond to the police objections to the video.
The 10-minute video, which has been shown to all prospective jurors in this federal district since March, is intended to make jurors aware of unconscious biases, said Court Clerk William McCool.
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Thomas’ family has sued the multi-jurisdictional Pierce County Metro SWAT team, two of its member cities, Lakewood and Fife, and several officers alleging wrongful death and unnecessary force. The case is set to go to trial next week in Seattle.
Attorneys for the Pierce County police officers being sued by Thomas’ family say showing the video would “re-inject race” into a trial where the judge already has excluded attorneys from making references to racism.
“The necessary implication from the video will be that” the white officer who fired the fatal shot, Lakewood sniper Brian Markert, “was (like everyone else) unconsciously biased when he shot Leonord Thomas because Leonard Thomas was of a different race,” wrote attorney Brian Augenthaler, one of several lawyers representing the cities and officers.
“Whatever minimal assistance this video could provide to the jury is greatly outweighed by the unfair prejudice to the defendants,” he wrote.
Tim Ford, one of the attorneys for the family, responded Wednesday that the case is “steeped in race,” and Rothstein, in a brief docket order, said the “court clarifies that it did not intend to make a blanket exclusion of any evidence of racial factors that may be relevant to the parties’ claims.”
The officer’s attorneys had also pointedly complained about the appearance in the video of Jeffery Robinson, a respected Seattle criminal and civil-rights lawyer, the current deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality in New York. The officers’ attorneys point out that four out of five of Robinson’s last personal blog posts — found on his ACLU page — were “highly critical of law enforcement.”
Thomas’ family alleges that police turned a family argument into a siege at Thomas’ Fife home in May 2013, where two armored vehicles and dozens of heavily armed officers descended to arrest a drunk and despondent man who was wanted only for misdemeanor assault.
A four-hour standoff appeared to be ending when Thomas, 30, agreed to let his son go home with his grandmother for the night. As Thomas led the boy onto the front porch, members of a SWAT assault team used explosives to blow open a back door, forcing their way in and killing the family dog with a burst of gunfire.
Thomas — who was unarmed — reportedly lunged for his son, and he was fatally shot by a police sniper as he reached for the boy.
The shot was announced on the radio with the word “Jackpot!” according to court records.
Rothstein sent the case to trial earlier this month, saying there was evidence that police violated policy and the Constitution in using deadly force to subdue Thomas.
McCool, the court clerk, explained that the unconscious-bias video was put together by a committee of judges and legal scholars led by senior U.S. District Judge John Coughenour, who appears in the video in his judicial robes, explaining that unconscious biases are “something we all have, just because we’re human.”
The video segues to Robinson, who is followed by U.S. Attorney Annette Hayes.
Both point out that people often aren’t even aware of their biases, and argue that justice and the truth benefit when jurors recognize, acknowledge and confront their prejudices.
“We need to question our decisions by asking whether they would be different if the witness, lawyer or person on trial were of a different race, age or gender,” says Hayes, the Western District of Washington’s top federal law-enforcement officer.
“Understanding that this can happen is an important first step in preventing it from tainting your decision-making process during a trial,” she said.
Coughenour, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1981 by then-President Ronald Reagan, wraps up the video stating, “The fact is, honest, intelligent, really good people are impacted by unconscious biases every day,” and says that being aware of them — the intent of the video — “can actually help us all become more conscious about the decisions we make.”
McCool said the video was introduced in March in Seattle and Tacoma courthouses, and that other federal judicial districts have expressed interest in using it or making their own.
“We’re very proud of it,” he said.