Jury in $15M verdict for police shooting of black man in Pierce County feared backlash, lawyers say

Attorneys for Lakewood police are asking a federal judge to throw out a $15.1 million civil-rights verdict over the sniper-shooting death of an unarmed black man, arguing the court erred by allowing the plaintiffs’ lawyers to “play the race card.”

Attorneys for the city of Lakewood, police Chief Mike Zaro and other officers facing a $15.1 million civil-rights jury verdict for the death of an unarmed African-American man are challenging the jurors, suggesting they feared community backlash if they found for the police.

“In this racially charged situation, they weren’t going to their individual communities and say that ‘We found in favor of white cops who killed an unarmed black man,’ ” attorney Richard Jolley told U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein during a hearing in Seattle on Tuesday.

Jolley and the defense have asked the court to reduce the verdict by more than $12 million and find that Zaro and two other Lakewood officers, facing a total of $6.5 million in punitive damages, are immune from any liability. They argued the law extends immunity to police when their actions are not “plainly incompetent” and they aren’t knowingly violating any law or constitutional right.

The judge took the matter under advisement.

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During the hourlong hearing, Jolley and the defense stuck to the narrative that drove the defense during the 10-day trial in July: that Leonard Thomas was violent, dangerous and holding his 4-year-old son hostage during a four-hour standoff in May 2013. They say he was moving to harm the child when he was shot by Lakewood Sgt. Brian Markert, a SWAT team sniper.

In pleadings filed before the hearing, the defense said Rothstein, the trial judge, had allowed the plaintiffs to play the “race card.” As a result, the defense contends, it was “…(S)addled with the impossible burden of defending not only this case but also the ubiquitous but unsubstantiated narrative that police are allegedly targeting African Americans for excessive force.”

The verdict awarded by the seven-member jury was apparently the largest of its kind in the Western District of Washington.

Jurors found in Thomas’ favor on every count, awarding $8.6 million for claims ranging from the officers killing the family dog to using explosives to level a back door and the “unlawful seizure” of Thomas himself by killing him. Almost half of the…

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