Jury awards more than $15M to family of unarmed black man killed by SWAT sniper in Fife

By Mike Carter  | The Seattle Times

Pierce County Metro SWAT assault-team leader Mike Wiley described the police sniper bullet that killed Leonard Thomas on the front porch of his Fife home in 2013, his 4-year-old son clasped in his arms, as a “frickin’ million-dollar shot.”

A unanimous jury in federal court on Friday decided that single .308-caliber round would cost more like $15 million, awarding Thomas’ parents and son one of the largest police deadly force verdicts in state history, against the cities of Lakewood and Fife and several key SWAT officers.

The award included punitive damages totaling $6.5 million: $3 million against Lakewood Chief Mike Zaro, who was the SWAT commander that night; $2 million against Lakewood Sgt. Brian Markert, the sniper who pulled the trigger; and $1.5 million against Wiley, a Lakewood police officer.

The verdict came after a three-week trial in U.S. District Court and more than three days of deliberations. It reflected the seven-member jury’s complete rejection of police claims that Thomas was holding his son hostage or using him as a human shield, or that he posed a threat to officers or himself.

The jury found for the Thomas family and estate on every count: unreasonable seizure, excessive force, deprivation of family relationship, using explosives to breach the home, unreasonably killing the family dog, false arrest, negligent investigation and causing severe emotional distress.

The jury gave compensatory damages in the amount of $4 million to Leonard Thomas’ son; $1.885 million to his estate; and $1.375 million each to his mother and father.

An expert witness hired by the family, a 25-year Los Angeles Police Department SWAT supervisor, said the child was never a hostage and there was no reason to shoot Thomas.

Zaro did not return a message for comment Friday. Richard Jolley, the lead attorney for the officers and cities, also did not respond to a request for comment.

“I’m shaking, to be honest,” said Annalesa Thomas, Leonard Thomas’ mother and now the guardian of his son. “I am so grateful to this jury and this verdict. Hopefully this will make a change in policy and protocol. Lethal force should always be the last option.”

Thomas’ son turned 9 the day the trial started. He was in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

“I’m so glad he was there and saw that someone stood up for his father,” Annalesa Thomas said.

Tim Ford, one of her attorneys, said the verdict “feels pretty good” after an exhausting trial.

“This verdict shows that Leonard Thomas’ life mattered,” Ford said.

It was Annalesa who had called police the night of June 23, 2013, after she had gone to Leonard Thomas’ home to retrieve the child. Thomas, who had been sober for a year, had started drinking again after the death of a childhood friend and had not been taking medication for bipolar disorder.

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

While only a misdemeanor assault at most, responding officers called out SWAT, which responded with 29 heavily armed officers and two armored assault vehicles, one of which they drove onto Thomas’ front yard.

A four-hour standoff ensued, during which Thomas, 30, refused to come out of the house and was belligerent and verbally abusive toward officers; he was not armed and never threatened anyone, according to testimony.

Negotiators eventually convinced Thomas to let the boy go home with his grandmother. Thomas was on the front porch with a car seat and a backpack with the boy’s clothes when Zaro told officers not to let him back into the house with the boy and then ordered an explosive breach of the home’s back door by Wiley’s assault team.

Officers used plastic explosives to flatten the back door, shot the family dog, Baxter, at least five times, and rushed into the house. Other heavily armed officers charged the home as well.

Thomas, startled by the blast, gunshots and the sight of officers running at him, grabbed for his son and Markert shot him in the belly from 90 feet away with a .308-caliber rifle, claiming Thomas was trying to strangle the boy.

Thomas bled to death while officers pummeled him and pulled his son from his arms. His last words were, “Don’t hurt my boy,” according to testimony.

Zaro would later oversee an internal investigation into the shooting and clear Markert of any wrongdoing. Markert did not make a statement for nearly two weeks after the shooting. Then, in a 15-page written statement put together with his attorney and information provided to him privately by Zaro, he referred to the boy as a “hostage” 113 times — a word that was uttered by officers and negotiators just once during the entire incident.

Jack Connelly, who represented Thomas’ estate, suggested that Markert had made up the story about strangulation in order to provide cover to Zaro and his illegal order not to let the child back into the home with his father. Markert denied it.

The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office had found the shooting justified, agreeing with the police claim that Thomas was using the child as a shield. Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist concluded “Officer Markert, an expert marksman, did what was necessary to protect a child.”

Testimony showed that several SWAT team officers were upset after the incident and questioned the need to breach the home and shoot.

Police that night also roughly arrested Frederick Thomas, Leonard’s father, after he became so concerned about the police escalation that he tried to get into the house and talk to his son.

Frederick Thomas learned about his son’s death while in jail the following morning. The jury found his arrest was unnecessary.

Throughout the trial, Jolley argued that Thomas was using his son as a “bargaining chip” and repeatedly referred to the child as a “hostage.”

The family alleged that Zaro moved toward a deadly confrontation even as the negotiators had persuaded Thomas to let the child go home with his grandmother.

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 previous conviction for a drive-by shooting.

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