The family of Leonard Thomas argues in the federal civil-rights case that he posed no threat to anyone when he was killed. But police defense attorneys say he was playing games with officers and using his son as a “pawn.”

Share story

Attorneys for the family of a mentally-ill, unarmed, African-American man killed by a SWAT sniper in front of his 4-year-old son after a 2013 standoff in Fife told a federal jury Wednesday that Leonard Thomas posed no threat to police, his son or himself when he was killed

Attorney Tiffany Cartwright, one of the lawyers representing Thomas’ parents and his now 9-year-old son, told an eight-member jury in opening statements that nothing that the drunken, despondent, bipolar man did warranted the massive police response the night of May 23, 2013 — two armored vehicles and at least 27 officers, including the Pierce Metro SWAT team — for a misdemeanor, domestic-violence offense.

Based on photographs introduced in trial, most, if not all, of the officers were white, and attorneys for Thomas’ family have alleged in court documents that the case is “steeped in race.”

Moreover, Cartwright told the five-woman, three-man panel that the situation was “that close” to resolving peacefully when the SWAT-team commander — Lakewood Police Chief Mike 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 — which include Zaro and Lakewood Sgt. Brian Markert, the sniper who shot Thomas, the metro SWAT team and the cities of Lakewood and Fife — told the jury 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.

Zaro and Markert, both in uniform, sat at the defense table during the arguments.

Thomas’ parents and his estate allege police violated his civil rights by using excessive force when they shot him. The lawsuit makes several other claims, including outrage and loss of companionship.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein sent the case to trial last month, saying there was evidence that police violated the Constitution and internal policies during the incident.

The family alleges 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 that 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, and Cartwright said trial evidence will show that Thomas never once threatened police, the child or himself.