A hearing in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of Christian Alberto Sierra, the 17-year-old Purcellville resident who was shot and killed by a Purcellville Police officer May 2014, was held in Loudoun County Circuit Court on Monday for a ruling on which pieces of information can be reviewed before trial.
Judge J. Howe Brown ruled that certain psychological records and testimony from doctors regarding Christian’s mental health in the years leading up to his death were relevant and should be provided for review by the defense team leading up to the six-day jury trial that is set to begin Oct. 28.
Jacqueline Kramer, an associate attorney with the Westlake Legal Group representing Sierra’s family, argued that the subpoena requests were overly broad and that the information they would turn up would “embarrass, injure and invade” Christian’s privacy.
Julia Judkins, the municipal law attorney representing the former town police officer, Timothy Hood, and the town, argued that the Sierras misrepresented the facts to her during her initial questioning in saying that Christian had minimal psychological treatment while growing up. She said that Christian actually had “lots of treatment” previously and that his parents “didn’t comply with mental illness treatment.”
She said Christian was “intent on committing suicide … He did so by running toward my officer with a knife,” she said.
On the afternoon of May 24, 2014, Christian, a junior at Loudoun Valley High School, cut himself with a 3-inch paring knife and threatened to kill himself outside his Frazer Drive home in Purcellville. A 2:14 p.m. 911 call brought Hood and an ambulance to the scene.
According to a March 2016 complaint made by Christian’s parents, Edwardo and Sandra, Hood knew the call was made for a mentally ill resident who was threatening suicide. They noted that Hood drove 40 feet past Christian, got out of his car, drew his gun, pointed it at Christian and began to yell at him.
Christian then stood up and began walking toward Hood, who, according to the complaint, “at no point” attempted to communicate with Christian or anyone else in the area and never attempted to use non-lethal force on him.
Hood then shot Christian at point-blank range “rapidly” four times in the chest and was heard saying, “it was a clean shoot.”
At 2:19 p.m., medical teams attempted reviving Christian, but soon pronounced him dead on the scene.
That incident prompted the Sierras to sue Hood, then-town Police Chief Darryl Smith, who has since retired, and the Town of Purcellville for $10.24 million for “sorrow, mental anguish and solace which include society, companionship, comfort, guidance, kindly offices and advice of Christian” and “reasonable funeral expenses.” They also sued for $1 million in punitive damages.
The Sierra’s lawsuit charges Hood and Smith with gross negligence and willful, wanton and reckless negligence; Hood with battery; and the town with negligence and for being responsible for Hood and Smith’s actions.
According to the Sierras’ complaint, Hood “exceeded his authority when he shot and killed Christian,” by violating town protocols on the use of force and encounters with mentally ill residents. “Hood escalated the situation and himself created the environment that led to his shooting and killing of Christian,” the complaint reads.
The couple claims that Smith did not sufficiently and properly train his officers on the use of deadly force, the interaction with mentally ill or suicidal residents and the use of non-lethal methods in such encounters.
They also claim that the town was negligent because it did not provide the police department with “less than lethal weapons” to use in those situations and allege that it should be held liable for the actions of its employees. “Upon learning of the actions of defendants Hood and Smith, the town took no adverse action and ratified the conduct of both defendants,” the complaint reads.
In response to the Sierras’ complaint, Smith moved for the court to throw the case out, noting that he’s protected by sovereign immunity—meaning that because the town could be deemed to be immune from civil suits, so could Smith’s actions.
According to Smith’s July 2016 memo, for the Sierras to overcome Smith’s request to drop the case, they would need to prove that he acted with a “degree of negligence which shows indifference to others as constitutes an utter disregard of prudence amounting to a complete neglect of the safety of another. It must be such a degree of negligence as would shock fair minded people although something less than willful recklessness.”
Monday’s ruling allowing Judkins the ability to review Christian’s psychological records prior to the trial wasn’t the first time the issue was debated.
In November, a judge ruled that Judkins could also access for review Christian’s psychiatric and psychological records from Loudoun Psychological Associates, granted the records didn’t date farther back than a year before his death.
Around that same time, a judge granted a request made by former Purcellville Police Lt. Joe Schroeck and former officer Guy Dinkins to disallow their employment records—dated from their start dates up until the shooting—from being accessed and reviewed by Kramer and her team.