A seven-person Loudoun County Circuit Court jury on Tuesday awarded $3.815 million in damages to the family of Christian Sierra. The verdict came more than five years after the 17-year-old Sierra was shot and killed by former Purcellville police officer Timothy Hood.
Having found that Hood battered Sierra in the shooting, the jury awarded each of the three remaining Sierras — father Eduardo, mother Sandra and sister Gabriela — $1.1 million in compensatory damages. Eduardo Sierra and Sandra Sierra were each also awarded $171,700 in punitive damages, while Gabriela Sierra was awarded a further $166,600.
The jury did not award damages for allegations against Hood of gross negligence or willful and wanton negligence.
On May 24, 2014, Sierra had attempted suicide by stabbing and cutting himself with a paring knife in the presence of several friends at a house on Frazer Drive in Purcellville. Two of those friends attempted to subdue and take the knife from Sierra, but he escaped the house by jumping out of a sliding door in the back.
An armed Sierra then roamed the neighborhood with one of his friends following closely before Sierra encountered Hood.
According to the initial Virginia State Police report, the friend was struggling for control of the knife when Hood emerged from his patrol vehicle. Sierra reportedly broke free from his friend and began to advance toward the officer.
Hood reportedly shot Sierra once the teen was five to 10 feet away from him. Sierra, the report said, continued to advance, prompting Hood to shoot him three more times.
Two more officers reported to the scene moments after the shooting. Sierra — who ultimately received three bullets in the chest and one in the shoulder — later died from his injuries.
Eduardo and Sandra Sierra filed a wrongful death suit in March 2016 seeking $10.24 million in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages from Hood, former Purcellville Police Chief Darryl Smith and the Town of Purcellville, according to the original court filings. Smith and the town were later demurred out of the suit.
Court proceedings in the case against Hood began last week with the selection of a nine-person jury on Oct. 28, followed the next day by opening arguments from plaintiff’s attorney Thomas Plofchan and defense attorney Julia Judkins.
Plofchan referred to Hood’s numerous prior testimonies, claiming they contradicted one another.
“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.
He further accused Hood of neglecting his prior law enforcement training, which included courses on use of force and dealing with mentally ill subjects.
“His instruction would have been that you should not use lethal force unless you’ve exhausted all other options,” Plofchan said. “He made no attempt to de-escalate the situation.”
Plofchan also alleged that Hood moved his police vehicle immediately after the shooting to make it appear that he was closer to Sierra at the time of the incident than he actually was. Finally, he alluded to the 911 dispatch call to which Hood responded, noting the mere three-second window between Hood hanging up upon arriving at the scene and calling back to report shots fired.
Judkins began her argument by insisting that her client “did not lie,” adding that Hood’s actions resulted from the quickness and apparent danger of the “crisis situation.”
“The standard for dealing with a person with a pointed weapon is, what would a reasonable police officer do given the circumstances?” Judkins said. She added that there was no evidence against a warning being issued by Hood, claiming witnesses couldn’t recall whether Hood had said anything to the approaching Sierra before shooting.
Countering Plofchan’s argument that Hood should have remained in his vehicle and waited for backup, Judkins said her client “couldn’t have just waited and hoped some other officer would get there.” She further rejected Plofchan’s claims that the location of two bullets that passed through Sierra suggested he was not advancing directly toward Hood, saying the position and angle of Sierra’s body suggested otherwise.
Judkins spent the last portion of her argument alluding to Sierra’s alleged pattern of violent behavior — including domestic assaults against his mother and grandmother — dating back to 2009. She emphasized that the victim was mentally unstable to the point of volatility and was therefore a plausible threat to her client.
“Officer 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,” she concluded.
Counsel called a number of witnesses to the stand for the remainder of the week. On Oct. 31, Plofchan called on forensic science consultant Gary A. Rini, who emphasized the importance of physical evidence in pointing out the inconsistencies of Hood’s testimony.
Per evidence presented by Plofchan, the two bullets that passed through Sierra landed in a cluster of flower pots in the driveway of 221 Frazer Drive on the north side of the street. The victim’s body fell in the apron in front of 225 Frazer, two doors down and also on the north side.
Rini said this indicated that Hood shot Sierra from a parked position on the south side of the road — rather than the north side as the defense claimed — and led Plofchan to conclude that Hood moved his vehicle after the shooting.
“The physical evidence does not lie,” Rini said, adding that it would have been “impossible” for the bullets to end up where they did if Hood fired from the position he claimed.
Among the witnesses called by the defense was Dr. Sangeeta Chitlu, an Ashburn-based psychiatrist who met with Sierra numerous times beginning in June 2011.
Judkins asked Chitlu to reference Sierra’s patient history and past conversations with Sandra Sierra, in which Mrs. Sierra explained her son had a history of ADHD, depression and anger.
The doctor continued to meet with Christian Sierra several times per month.
“He exhibited mood swings and defiance. His parents were concerned,” Chitlu recalled.
When questioned by Plofchan, Chitlu said Sierra had at one point remarked that he “didn’t want to live,” but she otherwise denied observing active suicidal ideation in her patient.
On Nov. 4, counsel once more addressed the jury — down to seven people following the dismissal of two randomly selected alternate jurors — with Plofchan’s closing argument lasting nearly two hours.
The plaintiff’s attorney focused on two themes: an officer’s role to protect and to serve, and the timing of the situation. Regarding the latter, he cited professional witness testimony to say that firing four shots at Sierra would have taken Hood approximately two seconds.
Plofchan concluded that a mere one second remained between Hood hanging up his radio and shooting Sierra, arguing that the officer couldn’t have possibly issued continued warnings to Sierra to drop his weapon in that time.
“You will be asked to decide whether an attempt to protect Christian Sierra could have occurred in the remaining one second before he was shot,” Plofchan told the jury. “A thousand-one, and he’s dead. But somehow, that’s his fault?”
After replaying the 911 call, Plofchan quoted Hood’s words after shooting Sierra: “Shots fired. Put several rounds into him. Got the knife.”
“The primary goal of Officer Hood’s use of force should not have been to ‘get the knife,’ but preservation of life,” Plofchan said, adding that the officer was certified to use non-lethal instruments including a baton and chemical spray. “A weapon is to be used as a last resort. Timothy Hood used it as a first interaction.”
Plofchan discussed the allegations against Hood — battery, gross negligence, and willful and wanton negligence — saying that only one of the three needed to be proven to elicit damages from the defendant.
“Officer Hood shot Christian Sierra four times,” he said. “Mr. Hood will have to prove that this wasn’t battery.”
He also contested the defense’s allegations that Christian Sierra, in his alleged threat to his shooter, was contributorily negligent, emphasizing that the victim “had one second to react.”
After once more referring to the physical evidence and Hood’s purported conflicting testimonies, Plofchan concluded by arguing the Sierras’ entitlement to compensation.
“We can’t bring Mr. Sierra back. Life is priceless, life is precious,” he said. “But Timothy Hood didn’t shoot a target. As Sandra Sierra said, when Hood ended her baby’s life he ended her life, too. Each plaintiff deserves compensation for his or her sorrow.”
In her roughly 40-minute closing argument, Judkins acknowledged the Sierra family’s sorrow while reiterating the defense’s claims that Hood acted reasonably and honestly and did not attempt to manipulate the evidence.
“It’s impossible not to be sympathetic to a family who has lost a child,” she said. “But you can’t base your verdict on that. Remember, this case was investigated by the Virginia State Police for months. This is the first time the theory of a conspiracy to manipulate evidence has come up.”
She referenced several professional witness testimonies to say that Hood’s priority in the situation was exercising “reasonable force.”
“It is what a reasonable officer sees based on the totality of the present circumstances,” Judkins said. “According to witness testimony, you can use deadly force to protect life, either yours or others’.”
Judkins also referenced what she called “the law enforcement officer’s dilemma,” which dictates that an officer must act in a prudent manner but cannot afford to be indecisive.
“This was a volatile, fast-moving encounter. If my client hadn’t acted and anyone had been stabbed as a result, you’d be blaming him for his lack of action,” she said.
However, the defending attorney’s main focus was arguably Sierra’s mental instability and suicidality. She argued that the teen charged at Hood with the assumption — and hope — that the officer would fire.
“Christian Sierra was intent on dying by suicide,” Judkins said. “He was going to end his life come hell or high water. How he chose to do it was by going at my client.”
She used this point to rebut the plaintiffs’ claims of battery, which counsel defined as unwanted contact that results in harm to another.
“This was not an unwanted touching. Christian Sierra wanted to die that day,” she said.
Judkins added that, if the jury should find the Sierras are owed compensation, they would send a message to all police officers saying, “No matter the circumstances involving a dangerous subject, you’re supposed to try to talk them down.” She also suggested the family might take advantage of any awarded damages to simply live more comfortably, citing Eduardo Sierra’s mention of possibly retiring and being able to send his 16-year-old daughter to college.
“Yes, Christian Sierra’s life was worth something, but he was a severely mentally ill man who told his friends he was going to kill himself, and he proceeded to do that by running at my client in the way he did,” she said in closing. “I ask you to find that my client acted as a reasonable police officer would have, that he acted in good faith, and that this incident happened because Christian Sierra willfully took actions to end his life.”
In his rebuttal, Plofchan called Judkins’ argument that Sierra wished for Hood to shoot him “the most ridiculous argument I have ever heard. It suggests that Officer Hood did Christian Sierra a favor.”
He then targeted the claim that he had called Hood’s alleged movement of his police vehicle a conspiracy, saying he never accused the other two officers on the scene of participating in such action.
“All of a sudden, we’re alleging conspiracy? What an absurd argument,” he said.
Referring to the claim that Sierra was contributorily negligent and that his actions were a proximate cause of his own death, Plofchan said Sierra “didn’t have time to be contributorily negligent.”
Plofchan later told the Times-Mirror it is unclear whether the jury did not award damages for gross negligence or willful and wanton negligence because they found Sierra contributorily negligent.
He said the defense’s worst argument, however, was that the plaintiffs did not deserve to be compensated because of how they would use the damages. He added that eliciting damages from the defendants would indeed send a message to law enforcement — a positive one.
“What the family spends its money on has nothing to do with it. They are entitled to compensation,” he said. “Here are some messages it would send: ‘Officers, don’t lie.’ ‘Adhere to your training.’ ‘Protect us.’”
In closing, he quoted the witness testimony from Sierra’s 16-year-old sister, saying, “This all could have been prevented.”
Nearly 24 hours after the jury was first dismissed to begin deliberation, the verdict was delivered around 12:45 p.m. Tuesday in the old Loudoun County Courthouse.