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The family of Danny Ray Thomas, an unarmed black man whose encounter with a Texas sheriff's deputy last month was captured by a bystander's cellphone right before the deputy shot him dead,filed a federal civil lawsuit Thursday against Harris County, Texas, citing a violation of Thomas' constitutional rights.
On the steps of the Harris County Civil Court in Houston, Thomas' grieving family and friends surrounded lawyers Robert Hilliard and Benjamin Crump as they held a news conference to announce the lawsuit.
“The videotape of Danny Ray Thomas fairly shows that this was an unarmed man in broad daylight," said Hilliard, a high-profile attorney who is known for cases involving wrongful death and personal injury. "The officer was not in danger of his life. He was clearly concerned that he did something that he shouldn’t have done.”
Witnesses told police that Thomas, 34, with his pants down around his ankles, was talking to himself at an intersection in Houston on March 22 and hitting cars as they passed by, according to a Houston Police Department press release. The driver of one car got out and started struggling with Thomas. When a Harris County sheriff's deputy, later identified as Cameron Brewer, arrived at the scene, Thomas began walking toward him, the police said. Thomas ignored the deputy's order to stop, the police said, and the deputy, fearing for his life, shot him once in the chest. He was taken to a hospital, where he later died.
The cellphone footage from a bystander shows Thomas walking toward Brewer. Then Brewer delivers the fatal shot. A spokesman for the sheriff's office later told The Houston Chronicle that no weapon was recovered at the scene.
Thomas' family members and lawyers said he was mentally ill and having a "mental crisis" at the time of the altercation that led to his death. At the news conference, Marketa Thomas, Thomas' sister, spoke of the hard times her brother had fallen on as he struggled to cope with the loss of two of his children in 2016.
His estranged wife, Sheborah, was charged in August 2016 with capital murder in the deaths of their 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. She is accused of drowning the children in a bathtub.
"Statistics bear out that if you're mentally ill and you are black that you already have two strikes against you when you encounter law enforcement," said Crump. "With the filing of this lawsuit we declare that just because you are having a mental crisis does not mean that you should encounter the death penalty, executed by a police officer on a street corner.”
The Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff's Office are also investigating the death. The sheriff's office declined to comment on the lawsuit on Thursday.
Thomas' death continues to stir up the already heated discussion about use of force by police officers, with his death coming just days after the death of Stephon Clark, 22, an unarmed black man killed in his grandmother's backyard in Sacramento, California.
Marketa Thomas appealed to the Harris County district attorney, Kim Ogg, for justice. "Ms. Kim Ogg, I ask you," she said. "Please give my family justice.”