Court proceedings commenced this week in the civil suit against former Purcellville Police Officer Timothy Hood, who shot and killed local teen Christian Sierra in 2014.
The victim’s parents, Eduardo and Sandra Sierra, filed a wrongful death suit in March 2016 seeking damages from Hood, former Purcellville Police Chief Darryl Smith and the Town of Purcellville. According to the original court filings, the plaintiffs are seeking $10.24 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.
Hood responded to a police dispatch on the afternoon of May 24, 2014, alleging that Sierra was trying to stab himself with a paring knife in the presence of friends at a townhome on Frazer Drive in Purcellville. Two of Sierra’s peers reportedly attempted to restrain him after he had already stabbed himself multiple times, but they were unsuccessful. Sierra fled after jumping from the second story of the residence.
An armed Sierra ran through the neighborhood, closely pursued by one of his friends, before encountering officer Hood. According to a Virginia State Police report filed soon after the incident, the friend was struggling for control of the knife when Hood exited his patrol vehicle, after which Sierra broke free and began to advance toward the officer.
Hood, the report said, discharged his gun once Sierra was within five to 10 feet of him. The teen reportedly continued to advance after being shot once, prompting Hood to shoot him three more times.
Two more officers reported to the scene after Sierra had been shot. Sierra — who, according to an autopsy, had stabbed himself 13 times in different areas of his body — later died from his injuries.
On Monday, Attorney Thomas Plofchan Jr. of Potomac Falls-based Westlake Legal Group presented the case on behalf of the plaintiffs before Circuit Court Judge James Howe Brown Jr.
Julia Judkins of Fairfax law firm Bancroft, McGavin, Horvath & Judkins is representing the defense.
Counsel spent most of Monday selecting a jury, with Brown, Plofchan and Judkins asking many questions of 70 potential jurors. Plofchan’s inquiries included concerns regarding bias against those of a certain race, non-English speakers and members of the LGBT community, while Judkins asked whether potential jurors held biased opinions for or against law enforcement.
A nine-person jury was selected and reported back to the Loudoun County Courthouse Tuesday morning for opening arguments.
Plofchan opened his address by saying that Sierra was “having some problems” and had become suicidal as a result. Sierra had recently concluded that he was bisexual and was struggling with depression, the attorney said.
Plofchan then walked the jury through the events of May 24, 2014, naming the witnesses present at the scene and questioning Hood’s previous testimony regarding the incident.
“The defendant initially said Christian Sierra was ‘charging’ at him, but eventually changed that to say that he was ‘walking briskly,’” Plofchan said, additionally claiming that — contrary to the initial police report — there is no evidence or testimony that Hood warned to Sierra to drop his weapon.
Plofchan further accused Hood of abandoning the prior training he had received from the Town of Purcellville and the Rappahannock Regional Criminal Justice Academy in Fredericksburg.
“Officer Hood took courses on dealing with and approaching the mentally ill. He also took courses on use of force, where his instruction would have been that you should not use lethal force unless you’ve exhausted all other options,” Plofchan said. “He had no concern for this mentally ill boy. He made no attempt to de-escalate the situation.”
Because the camera attached to Hood’s patrol car was not working on the day of the shooting, records of the police dispatch call to which Hood responded will serve as digital evidence. According to Plofchan, Hood hung up his end of the call one minute and 32 seconds after the dispatch was sent, but he called back a mere three seconds later to report shots had been fired.
Plofchan concluded his statement by referring to the remaining members of the Sierra family, reminding jurors that they’re tasked with choosing whether the family should be awarded damages and, if so, the value of those damages.
“You will hear from a family grieving its loss of solace, its loss of Christian’s funny jokes and excitement when Halloween and Christmas approached,” he said. “We will ask you to decide whether the evidence shows Thomas Hood had callous disregard for his training.”
Judkins began her remarks to the jury by insisting that her client “did not lie,” going on to explain that Hood’s actions resulted from the quickness and apparent danger of the “crisis situation.”
When Hood saw that blood had been drawn from Sierra’s self-inflicted knife wounds and witnessed Sierra and his friend making physical contact, Judkins said the officer believed the two boys were fighting and was thus compelled to act.
“The standard for dealing with a person with a pointed weapon is, what would a reasonable police officer do given the circumstances?” Judkins said, adding that witnesses couldn’t recall whether Hood had provided any warnings to Sierra. Witnesses did not rule out the possibility of a warning being issued.
“All we know is he had a knife and he was coming at my client. He was too close,” she said. “Police officers are trained to aim and shoot for the center of mass when a person is a threat to themselves or others.”
Refuting Plofchan’s suggestion that Hood should have remained in his vehicle when encountering Sierra, Judkins said her client “couldn’t have just waited and hoped some other officer would get there.” She also disputed Plofchan’s claims that the location of two bullets that passed through Sierra suggested that the teen was not advancing directly toward Hood, saying that the position and angle of Sierra’s body suggested otherwise.
Finally, Judkins detailed Sierra’s alleged pattern of violent behavior, which caused law enforcement to be called to his home numerous times since 2009.
“Christian Sierra assaulted his mother and grandmother multiple times. According to a psychologist who will testify before the court, Christian’s parents were conflicted on how to treat him,” she said.
The teen reportedly spent time in a “shelter” and underwent treatment by Loudoun County Mental Health Services for more than two years, though in the months leading up to his death he halved the dosage of his prescribed medication against his doctor’s wishes. Judkins also claimed that Sierra had come out as bisexual to his family -- an interaction that hadn’t gone well.
“They didn’t accept it — they couldn’t accept it,” she said of Eduardo and Sandra Sierra, adding that their son had demonstrated suicidal tendencies in March 2014 when he wielded a knife in front of them and threatened to kill himself.
The defense’s opening argument concluded with Judkins’ claim that Hood “had no opportunity to de-escalate the situation. Christian Sierra was running at my client with a knife. He acted in self-defense, with reasonable belief that he had to act with deadly force.”
The trial is expected to continue until Nov. 4.