The one witness who never testified was the one who could have explained everything: Fate. It was an undeniable presence in U.S. District Court Judge Thomas...

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The one witness who never testified was the one who could have explained everything:


It was an undeniable presence in U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly’s courtroom, threading through almost every minute of testimony, sitting on the plaintiff’s side of the room and at the defense table.
The estate of Robert Thomas Sr. had filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against King County sheriff’s Deputy Mel Miller, who shot and killed Thomas three years ago in Miller’s neighborhood near Renton. The $25 million suit contended that Miller had violated Thomas Sr.’s constitutional rights.

On Friday, a jury said that he had not.

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But the facts of the case will always be in dispute. Who said what, who pulled a gun first and what was at stake.

And I will always be struck by the fate of this crossing of two men who otherwise would have never met.

There was Thomas Sr., a 59-year-old African American, a convicted felon with a loaded Glock, an open bottle of fortified wine and his son, Robert Jr., in the front seat of his pickup, on the way to see a friend. Tests would later put Thomas Sr.’s blood-alcohol level at 0.25 percent — more than three times the legal limit — and find traces of cocaine.

And there was Miller, then 49, a white, off-duty deputy with stony features and silvery hair. Lake McDonald Road was his purview; he was the guy neighbors called when something threatened to puncture their suburban idyll.

Sometimes Miller didn’t need a call to investigate.

One witness told the court of finding Miller in her house during a party. She thought he was an invited guest until he angrily complained about the music.

Miller, too, had a gun when he encountered Thomas that fateful Sunday. It was tucked into the waist of his jeans.

The events leading up to Thomas Sr.’s death — and his son being shot in the hand — lasted about 15 seconds.

Miller, alerted by a neighbor that an unfamiliar truck was blocking a private road, approached Thomas’ pickup, where the father and son were drinking and talking.

Thomas Jr. says Miller was immediately hostile, telling him to get the truck out of the neighborhood.

Miller says Thomas Jr. was immediately “harsh,” mimicked him and made no move toward leaving.

Miller never flashed a badge, never identified himself as a deputy.

Thomas Jr. flashed a bottle of Cisco.

At some point, Thomas Sr. moved for his gun and pointed it, Miller says.

Miller fired three shots.

I didn’t envy the jury. So much still not clear. They carried into deliberations the knowledge that this was the last chance for all involved.

For the Thomas family, to be compensated, somehow.

For Miller, to prove — again — that he did the right thing.

The jury said he did.

And fate — again — was sealed.

Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or

She carries a loaded iPod.