Jury Awards $15 Million to Family of Unarmed Man Killed by SWAT Sniper

Civil Rights, Police Misconduct

In July 2017, a federal jury awarded more than $15 million to the estate and surviving family members of Leonard Thomas, a young father who was shot by a SWAT sniper in 2013 while he stood on his front porch holding his four-year-old son in his arms.  The jury found that the actions of Lakewood police officers Michael Zaro (the SWAT commander), Michael Wiley (the SWAT tactical leader) and Brian Markert (the SWAT sniper) were reckless, outrageous, and violated the Thomas family’s civil rights.

MHB attorneys Tim Ford, David Whedbee, and Tiffany Cartwright represented Leonard’s parents, Fred and Annalesa Thomas, and his son, Elijah Thomas.  Jack Connelly and Meaghan Driscoll of Connelly Law Offices represented Leonard’s estate.

During the three-week trial, jurors heard how Fife police came to Leonard’s house after he and his mother argued over where his son should spend the night.  Leonard was upset over the sudden death of a close friend and had been drinking after a long period of sobriety, and Leonard’s mother was worried that he would fall asleep and not be able to attend to his son.  Leonard never threatened to harm himself, the police officers who responded, or his little boy.  Nonetheless, when Leonard refused to come out of his house and turn his son over to police, the Fife Police Department activated the Pierce Metro SWAT Team, made up of officers from cities throughout Pierce County, but primarily Lakewood.

The SWAT team surrounded Leonard’s home with officers clad in tactical gear and armed with rifles and explosives, two armored vehicles, and two snipers.  Although Leonard was still upset, he spoke with SWAT crisis negotiators throughout the night, and assured them that he was unarmed, his son was fine, and he just wanted the police to leave him alone and let him put his son to bed.

At one point, Leonard’s father, Fred, tried to approach the house to talk to his son.  Rather than treat Fred like the concerned father he was, the officers arrested him and took him to jail, where he sat until he learned his son was dead.  When Fred was released the next morning, he saw that Leonard had tried to call him in the hours before he was killed, but Fred could not answer the phone because he was in jail.

After several hours, Leonard agreed to send his son home with Leonard’s mother, Annalesa.  The officers brought Annalesa to the end of the driveway, and Leonard came out onto the front porch with his son.  Leonard packed an overnight bag and brought a car seat out on the porch for his little boy.  Negotiations stalled when Leonard was hesitant to send his son to the police, rather than directly to his mother, but Leonard and his son remained on the porch.  The SWAT team members, including sniper Brian Markert, could see that Leonard was unarmed.

But unbeknownst to Leonard, SWAT Commander Michael Zaro had ordered his team not to let Leonard go back in the house with his son, and the team was preparing to breach the back door of the house using explosives.  When Zaro and tactical leader Wiley ordered detonation of the breach, the explosion startled Leonard, who grabbed his son and started to back inside the door.  To prevent Leonard from going back inside, sniper Brian Markert shot him through the abdomen, only inches away from Elijah’s four-year-old body.  Annalesa heard the bullets and her grandson’s screams as a SWAT negotiator tried to shield her from seeing the shooting.  Leonard bled to death in the front entryway of the home as his son was pulled screaming from his arms by the officers.  Leonard’s last words were: “Don’t hurt my boy.”

Meanwhile, tactical leader Wiley praised the shooting, calling it a “million dollar shot” and “frickin’ righteous,” and joking with Commander Zaro about needing a massage afterwards.  In an effort to justify the shooting, sniper Markert claimed afterwards that he thought Leonard was choking his son, a claim that was contradicted at trial by both physical evidence and the testimony of Markert’s fellow officers.  Commander Zaro, who had authorized the use of deadly force, then proceeded to preside over the Shooting Review Board that cleared Markert of any wrongdoing.

After a three-week trial, a seven-member jury diverse in age, gender, and ethnicity returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the Thomas family on all of their claims.  The jury awarded $1.885 million to the Estate of Leonard Thomas, $1.375 million each to Fred and Annalesa Thomas, and $4 million to Leonard’s son, who turned nine years old during the trial.  The jury also imposed punitive damages of $3 million against SWAT Commander Michael Zaro, $2 million against Sniper Brian Markert, and $1.5 million against Tactical Team Leader Michael Wiley.  

The jury’s verdict is among the largest ever awarded in a police shooting case, and serves as important vindication that no family should have to experience such trauma and loss at the hands of the police.  MHB’s victory on behalf of the Thomas family is part of our ongoing commitment to standing up against the abuse of power and unnecessary militarization of police.

You can read more about the Thomas case in the Seattle Times and Crosscut:

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/crime/jury-awards-nearly-15m-to-family-of-unarmed-black-man-killed-by-swat-sniper-in-fife/

https://crosscut.com/2017/07/fife-police-shooting-15-million-lawsuit-lawyers-talk

Attorneys who worked on this case:

David Whedbee, Tiffany Cartwright, Tim Ford

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