$15 million verdict upheld in Lakewood police shooting

Lawyers: Jurors didn’t want to tell their friends they sided with a white cop who shot a black man.

By Sean Robinson / The News Tribune

A federal judge has denied the City of Lakewood’s request to overturn a $15.1 million jury verdict stemming from the the fatal 2013 shooting of an unarmed black man in Fife.

In a 69-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein rejected every argument the city’s attorneys offered in their efforts to undo the findings that stemmed from the shooting of Leonard Thomas, who died on his front porch in Fife with his four-year-old son in his arms. The civil-rights trial ended in July, with a verdict that ranks among the largest in state history.

In briefs seeking a new trial and a reduction in damages, the city’s attorneys continued to suggest that police actions at the scene were justified. They argued that jurors were influenced by racial factors, and could not return to their communities and say they found in favor of “white cops that shot an unarmed black man.”

Rothstein took particular aim at that point.

“The Court could not more strongly reject Defendants’ argument,” she wrote. “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. Eight individuals interrupted their lives for three and a half weeks of solemn attention to this case.

“These eight individuals swore to try the matter at issue according to the evidence and the instructions of this Court. They listened, they watched, and for five days they deliberated. 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.”

Thomas was killed in the midst of a domestic dispute that escalated into a four-hour standoff and brought a SWAT team to the address. His mother had called police after trying and failing to pick up her grandson, then 4 years old.

Thomas had been drinking at the time, and initially refused to come out of the house when ordered, according to records and testimony at trial. He had agreed to turn his son over to his grandmother and was standing on the porch with the boy’s backpack and car seat

The SWAT team included Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro, then the incident commander; Lakewood Sgt. Brian Markert, who fired the fatal shot, and Officer Mike Wiley.

Thomas had agreed to let his son go to his grandmother and was standing on the porch with the child’s backpack and car seat. At that point, Zaro ordered his team to use a flash-bang explosive on the back door. When Thomas reached for his son, Sgt. Markert shot him. Thomas’s last words, described at trial, were, “don’t hurt my boy.”

The original verdict awarded $8.6 million in compensatory damages to Thomas’ parents and 9-year-old son, and $6.5 million in punitive damages against Zaro ($3 million), Markert ($2 million) and Wiley ($1.5 million).

Rothstein’s ruling upheld those awards in every respect, including $500,000 for the arrest of Thomas’s father, who came to the scene and asked to be able to negotiate with his son; and $10,000 for the shooting of Baxter, Thomas’s dog.

“This jury was empaneled to hear a case about a misuse of police power that left a young man dead, a child fatherless, two parents devastated with grief,” Rothstein wrote. “The law is not so cold and callous as to forbid an emotional reckoning with this suffering. The jury need not have — and could not have — avoided the manner and magnitude of the Thomas family’s loss. “Indeed, the jury was instructed to access its collective emotional register to consider whether the officials’ conduct here ‘shocks the conscience.’ It found in the affirmative, and rationally calculated that the sound and fury unleashed by Defendants in May 2013 signified something very specific: $15,135,000 in damages.”

Jack Connelly, one of Thomas’s attorneys, called the judge’s ruling gratifying.

He added, “There is no question that the police have a difficult job. But there are procedures that are supposed to be followed and standards that apply. Calling out a SWAT team to a minor domestic dispute and then issuing an order permitting deadly force on a man known to be unarmed and then trying to cover up the fact that the use of deadly force was not in compliance with protocols is inexcusable.”

Lakewood’s attorneys have the option to challenge Thursday’s ruling at the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Reached Thursday evening, city spokeswoman Brynn Grimley said the city was not prepared to comment.

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