Five years ago, a Purcellville Police officer shot and killed a teen with a history of mental illness who was wielding a knife and threatening suicide. This week, a nine-person jury is hearing evidence and witness testimony to determine whether that officer was justified in his actions.
The 17-year-old Purcellville resident was shot and killed by former town police officer Timothy Hood in May 2014. The wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Christian Alberto Sierra seeks $10.24 million in damages and $1 million in punitive damages from the Town of Purcellville.
The court case opened Tuesday morning and is scheduled to wrap up by the end of the day on Monday. Under instruction of retired Circuit Court Judge James Howe Brown, Jr., the jury will need to unanimously determine whether Hood acted as he was instructed or threw caution to the wind in a brief moment of neglect.
On May 24, 2014, Sierra, then a junior at Loudoun Valley High School, locked himself in the bathroom of his friend Jared Mingo’s house on Frazer Drive. According to Mingo’s testimony, Sierra began stabbing himself in the neck with a 3-inch paring knife after Mingo pried him from the bathroom. Sierra then ran out of the house and down the street with Mingo chasing after him, attempting to take the knife away. According to Thomas Plofchan, the Westlake Legal Group manager and attorney representing the Sierra family, Sierra was upset about his life because his parents didn’t take the news of him coming out as bi-sexual well.
When Sierra ran away from the house, Hood and two other officers were dispatched to the scene after a 2:14 p.m. 911 call from Mingo. Plofchan said the dispatchers “very specifically” clarified to the officers that the call was suicide-prevention related.
When Hood arrived on the scene, Mingo said Hood got out of his car a few townhomes away from where Sierra was sitting on the ground, drew his gun and pointed it at Sierra, who then began walking toward Hood.
Mingo said Sierra took only a few steps before Hood fired “four shots in quick succession” into Sierra—three in his chest and one in his shoulder.
At 2:19 p.m., medical teams attempted to revive Sierra, but eventually pronounced him dead on the scene. Plofchan said Sierra didn’t die instantly, but remained splayed on the ground bleeding out for about an hour.
“I was terrified,” Mingo testified. “I had never seen anyone die in front of me before.”
Sierra’s parents, Edwardo and Sandra, subsequently sued Hood, then-town Police Chief Darryl Smith and the Town of Purcellville.
In his opening statement, Plofchan argued that Hood abandoned his training, “acted in haste” and displayed an “utter disregard” of caution and prudence and a “reckless disregard” of the consequences of his actions, knowing that they would lead to bodily harm.
Plofchan said Hood had recently completed nine months of field training with an experienced officer before the incident and that he had graduated from the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy prior to that. He said that because of his recent training, Hood should have known how to handle the situation—by exhausting all other options before using lethal force.
Plofchan said Hood was so focused on getting the knife out of Sierra’s hand that he “had no concern for this mentally-ill boy.”
“He got the knife and put a 17-year-old in the ground,” he said. “I guess he prevented the suicide.”
Plofchan additionally said that Hood, after shooting Sierra, moved his car in front of Sierra’s body to “escape responsibility” by making it seem as though Sierra had rushed toward Hood with the knife all the way to his car—therefore making it seem as though Hood was in greater danger than he actually was.
In her opening, Julia Judkins, Hood’s defense attorney, refuted Plofchan’s statements that Hood was reckless or acted hastily, noting that Hood was trained to use deadly force when his life was threatened.
“The evidence will show there was a threat,” she said. “He had no opportunity to de-escalate this situation.”
Judkins also refuted Plofchan’s claim that Hood attempted to escape responsibility for his actions by moving his car, noting that no witnesses previously said they had seen Hood move his car after the shooting. “This, I will tell you, is fantasy,” she said.
Judkins asserted that Sierra intended to kill himself that day one way or another and that he wanted to be re-incarnated. “It was all very bizarre [and] upsetting to everyone,” she said.
Mingo also testified that Sierra wanted to die and “be reborn when the aliens came in 2015.”
Judkins also talked about Sierra’s history of mental health problems—how he had begun intensive psychiatric treatment in 2010 and was previously convicted of assaulting his mother and grandmother. She said the Sierras had a long and “chaotic” history at home in which “they were frequently calling the police and complaining [about Christian’s behavior].”
During the trial, Judkins will be allowed to defend Hood by claiming there was probable cause for Hood to use deadly force; that Sierra was contributorily negligent; that Sierra assumed the risk of being shot and killed; or that Sierra’s parents were contributorily negligent in discontinuing their son’s psychiatric treatment.
While Plofchan asked the jury to focus on Hood’s actions on May 24, 2014, and not Sierra’s mental health leading up to that point, Judkins asked the jury to look at the broader picture, including Sierra’s years of psychiatric treatment and alleged unwavering desire to kill himself.