Five years ago, a Purcellville police officer took less than five seconds to park his car, order a teen to drop a knife, and fire four shots into that teen’s chest, which left the teen dead on the street. This week, a jury found that officerunjustified in his actions and ordered the officer to pay the teen’s family $3.81 million.
A seven-member Circuit Court jury on Tuesday unanimously found that Timothy Hood, a former Purcellville Police and current Haymarket Police officer, battered 17-year-old Christian Alberto Sierra when he shot and killed him in May 2014, as Sierra approached Hood with a 3-inch paring knife. The jury did not award the Sierras damages for gross negligence nor willful or wanton negligence on Hood’s behalf.It ordered Hood to pay Sierra’s parents, Eduardo and Sandra, and sister, Gabriela, $1.1 million each in damages. The jury also awarded Eduardo and Sandra each $171,728.76 and Gabriela $166,666.66 in punitive damages. Originally, the Sierra family had sued for $10.24 in damages and $1 million in punitive damages for Christian’s wrongful death.
Following a five-day trial, the jury took arguments made by Thomas Plofchan, the attorney representing the Sierra family, to heartand found that Hood committed the unwanted touching of Sierra in the shooting. Plofchan argued that Hood lied about the spot where he shot Sierra and abandoned his training by using deadly force as a first choice in a situation involving a suicidal suspect.
“[Police officers are] trained to stop the suicide, not put four bullets in and kill somebody,” Plofchan said. “That was his training, that was ignored.”
On May 24, 2014, Sierra, a junior at Loudoun Valley High School, began stabbing himself in the neck with a paring knife at his friend Jared Mingo’s house. Sierra eventually ran from the house with Mingo chasing after him trying to get the knife. According to Plofchan, Sierra was upset about his life because his parents didn’t take the news of him coming out as bi-sexual well.
Mingo’s2:14 p.m.911 call dispatched Hood and two other officersto Frazer Drive, where Hood said he sawMingo bearhugging Sierra.
According to case documents and witness testimony, Hood radioed to dispatch, parked his cara few townhomes away from the boys and got out while simultaneously drawing his firearm, just as Sierra began approaching Hood.
Hood testified that he called out for Sierra to “drop the knife” three times in the 1.5 seconds it took Sierra to walk about 10 feet closer to him. Hood said that when Sierra didn’t drop the knife, he shot him once from about 6 feet away, then three more times as Sierra’s momentum continued forward another foot.
Mingo testified that 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 reviving Sierra, but eventually pronounced him dead on the scene. Plofchan said Sierra didn’t die instantly, but bled out slowly.
In all—from the time Hood radioed to dispatch to when he radioed back that the shooting had occurred—the incident took 4.7 seconds to play out.
Throughout four days of witness testimony, the questioning centered on three key points of contention—Sierra’s mental state, how Sierra approached Hood, and the location from which Hood shot Sierra.
According to a pre-trial deposition of Mikaela Friedman, an acquaintance of Sierra’s who was at Mingo’s house that day, Sierra wanted to die. “I don’t want to put a damper on your day, but I want to kill myself,” Friedman said that Sierra told his friends that day.
Friedman said Sierra also showed his friends websites describing scenarios in which people choose where their souls go when they die.
During the trial, Mingo testified that Sierra wanted to “be reborn when the aliens came in 2015.”
But while Sandra Sierra said her son suffered from depression and anxiety, she denied claims that he was suicidal. Sangeeta Chitlu, Christian’s psychiatrist, said she couldn’t recall Sierra mentioning to her that he was suicidal.
Julia Judkins, Hood’s defense attorney, argued that Sierra was contributorily negligent because he “was intent on dying by suicide” and did so by approaching Hood with a knife knowing that Hood would shoot him.
Ronald Paschal, a Virginia State Police senior special agent, testified that Mingo had told him three hours after the shooting that Sierra had run at Hood with the knife raised. Paschal said Mingo mentioned “run” or “running” five times in his account and twice ended his sentences with the phrase “with the knife raised.”
“Christian Sierra unfortunately wanted to die that day,” Judkins said. “Come hell or high water, he was going to do it.”
Plofchan refuted those claims, labelling Judkins’ position as “the most ridiculous argument I’ve ever heard.” He called several witnesses who said Sierra wasn’t suicidal.
But Mingo’s testimony was different from his interview with Paschal five years ago. On the witness stand, Mingo said Sierra never ran at Hood and never raised the knife, but walked toward Hood with the knife moving up and down as much as his arms moved as he walked. Mingo also testified that Sierra never lunged at Hood.
Plofchan said Mingo wasn’t at fault for his contradicting statements, given the “sloppy investigation” the Virginia State Police conducted after the shooting,referring to Paschal’s neglect in clarifying with Mingo what he meant when saying that Sierra ran “at” versus “toward” Hood.
Regardless of why or how Sierra approached Hood, he did, and he was shot and killed—from a location that Plofchan and Judkins disputed throughout the trial.
In his testimony, Hood said he stopped his car about 20 feet away from Sierra and Mingo, although Plofchan pointed out that Hood wrote in a 2014 police report that he parked 40 feet away. Hood said he then put the car in park and got out with his gun drawn. At first, he didn’t state exactly where he stood when he shot Sierra, but insinuated that he stood to the left of the driver-side door. However, he eventually testified that he retreated to the back of the car and shot Sierra from there.
Plofchan claimed that Hood didn’t move to the back of his car to shoot Sierra, but that he moved his car forward after the shootingto “escape responsibility” by making it seem as though Sierra had walked closer to Hood than what he actually did—making it seem as though Hood’s safety was in greater danger.
Supporting Plofchan’s argument was Gary Rini, a use of force consultant,who said it would have been “impossible” for Hood to have shot Sierra from the position he claimed to be standing.
Rini pointed to the location of the bullets that passed through Sierra’s body. He said Hood must have shot Sierra from a position “much farther back” than where his police cruiser was parked after the shooting, because the bullets found in a flowerpot in front of a townhouse nearby did not match that trajectory.
“The physical evidence refutes what he said,” Rini said of Hood’s testimony. “That car had to be back farther to accommodate where the bullets were.”
But Hood said the car was never moved.
When Judkins asked former Purcellville Police Lt. Joe Schroeck whether he was involved in a coverup by moving Hood’s car after the shooting, Schroeck denied the assertion, adding that Hood’s car was never moved. “Everything was kept just as it was,” he said.
Overall, through the use of close to 75 pieces of evidence and more than a dozen witnesses, Plofchan argued that Hood abandoned his trainingin dealing with a suicidal suspect.But Todd Markley, the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy’s use of force supervisor, said the actions appeared justified.
Markley said deadly force can be used if the life of an officer or another person is threatened or if they’re at risk of serious bodily injury. He said that while a person with a knife is not a threat if an officer remains in his or her car, he would have deemed the 3-inch knife that Sierra held to be threatening because it was longer than two inches and had blood on it.
Markley said deadly force should be used to stop a person from continuing the threat, rather than to kill that person. He said to do that, it could take one shot or even 12 shots, depending on when the person stops advancing their position. “You shoot to stop the aggressive actions as many times as is reasonable,” he said.
From Hood’s point of view,he “had a subject with a knife who had blood on him who was coming toward [his] vehicle,” which prompted him to determine that he was faced with a lethal force. He said his training instructed him to not shoot to wound and noted that he didn’t use his baton because it might not have worked to stop Sierra’s advance and that he didn’t use a TASER because he wasn’t trained to use one at the time.
Hood said he used the 21-foot rule, which police officers are instructed to use in such situations. Hood said that if a person is within 21 feet of an officer and begins to approach them, that person could reach the officer sooner than the officer could draw his or her gun, meaning the officer is obligated to do so.
Markley said that while that rule holds true, it also depends on the situation—a notion the jury upheld.
Plofchan asked Hood why he didn’t maintain cover by staying in his car—an element of the training for officers arriving on the scene of a suicidal suspect. Hood said he felt that he had to react instantly and that he needed to respond to the situation. “It would have been irresponsible of me and against my duties as a police officer to not handle the situation,” he said.
In her closing argument, Judkins said the jury couldn’t base its verdict on sympathy for the Sierra family and that finding Hood to be negligent or have battered Sierra would send the message to every police officer in the county, or state, that it’s better to die or be seriously injured than to shoot a suspect approaching them with a lethal weapon in hand.
“You’re telling [Hood], ‘you should have let Sierra stab you, kill you,’” she said.
Plofchan’s final arguments highlighted two themes—Hood’s responsibility to protect and serve the community and the time it took for the shooting to unfold.
Plofchan said Sierra’s death could have been avoided if Hood had adhered to his training, adding that Sierra’s friends didn’t use guns to stop Sierra from hurting himself.
“Use of force is used as a last resort—[Hood] used it as his initial interaction,” he said.
Plofchan argued that Sierra didn’t have enough time to be contributorily negligent in the few seconds that lapsed between Hood’s first radio call to dispatch, his alleged yells for Sierra to drop the knife, the four shots he fired and his radio call back.
“A 17-year-old lies in the grave while his family suffers,” Plofchan told the jury. “The Sierra family name will die out.”
After the verdict was read, Plofchan praised America’s trial-by-jury system as being “one of the greatest gifts” in society, but downplayed the trial’s outcome.
“No one wants this because somebody died,” he said.
Judkins and Hood declined to comment.