Credibility issues undermined a police officer’s defense for the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old boy, according to lawyers who won a $3,810,124.18 verdict from a Loudoun County jury.
Despite a Virginia State Police report that found no reason to charge the officer in the youth’s 2016 death, a seven-member jury decided the officer was liable for battery after hearing his conflicting accounts of the scene, the lawyers said.
The verdict will be reduced to $3.65 million because of Virginia’s $350,000 cap on punitive damages, the lawyers said. Post-trial motions are pending.
The family of Christian Sierra was represented by Thomas K. Plofchan Jr. and Jacqueline A. Kramer of Potomac Falls.
On May 24, 2017, Christian allegedly told friends that he wanted to take his life and began cutting at his neck with a kitchen paring knife. The friends called police when they were unable to get the knife away from Christian, the lawyers said.
A dispatcher sent three Purcellville town officers on the call for “a suicidal subject.” Officer Timothy Hood was first to arrive and reportedly located Christian and a friend sitting at a street corner.
The officer called to report he was on the scene at 1:31, Plofchan said. He later reported that he encountered the two youths struggling for control of the knife, and that Christian broke free and advanced on the officer.
Events clearly happened fast. At 1:35 Hood radioed to the dispatcher, “Shots fired, put several rounds into him, got the knife.”
Hood shot Christian Sierra four times in the chest and shoulder. The youth’s wounds were fatal.
Car’s location disputed
The state police report found no reason to question Hood’s account that he was facing an advancing youth with a knife who ignored multiple commands to put down the knife. Loudoun County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman reviewed the report and said he would not seek charges.
But Plofchan said the description of the incident in the VSP report did not square with the physical evidence at the scene. The police car ended up past the location of Christian’s body, contrary to Hood’s account.
“It was a sore spot for me,” Plofchan said in an interview Nov. 25. “The body should have been in front of the car.” He concluded the car had been moved.
Forensic science expert Gary A. Rini of Ohio came to the same conclusion, Plofchan said. Rini said the location of the bullets recovered at the scene indicated Hood must have fired from much further away.
Confronted with the discrepancy, Hood said he must have forgotten about moving his car, according to Plofchan.
One hiccup delayed the trial in January. The defense sought to call Plowman – the county prosecutor – to testify about his conclusions. All Loudoun County judges recused themselves from the case, four days before trial.
Appointed to preside was retired Fairfax Circuit Judge J. Howe Brown, who heard the case over six days in early November.
At trial, Hood was unable to overcome the discrepancies about the scene.
“The jury accepted Rini’s conclusion that Hood moved his vehicle,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers said.
Plofchan said he emphasized Hood’s inconsistent statements about the physical scene and Hood’s apparent failure to follow training for dealing with suicidal persons, which counsels a non-confrontational approach.
“He just abandoned all his training.” Plofchan said.
Defense verdicts on two counts
Hood was represented by Julia P. Judkins of Fairfax. She reportedly argued Christian was contributorily negligent for brandishing a knife. She also contended Hood acted as a reasonable officer who had to make a split-second decision while confronted with a threat.
The jury may have agreed with the defense on contributory negligence, as they rejected counts of gross negligence and willful and wanton negligence. The award was based on battery.
The jury’s award included $1.1 million each for Christian Sierra’s mother, father and sister and $510,124.18 in punitive damages. Plofchan said he did not know how the jury arrived at the punitive amount, but noted it would be capped at $350,000.
“It is a significant verdict for a police shooting,” he said.
The expected judgment is below the limits of the town’s municipal insurance coverage, Plofchan said.
Plofchan said he opted not to file in federal court with a civil rights claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 to avoid the procedural threshold of a qualified immunity motion. The qualified immunity standards still applied, in the form of jury instructions, he said.
“In my mind, I wanted it to be decided by seven people and not one,” Plofchan said.