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Va. Supreme Court reverses jury’s $1M award for family of man who died during 2019 standoff

“Detective Colas’ decision to fire his weapon constituted defense of another as a matter of law,” Justice Stephen McCullough said

Jeff Tyree.jpg

Photo/L. Todd Spencer via MCT

By Jane Harper
The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The Supreme Court of Virginia on Thursday reversed a jury’s decision to award $1 million in damages to the family of a Virginia Beach man killed during a 2019 standoff with police in his backyard.

The court’s ruling was issued in a 4-3 split decision, and involved the Feb. 9, 2019 shooting of Jeffrey Tyree by Virginia Beach Police Detective Bradley Colas. The incident was captured on police body camera video.

Tyree’s family sued Colas and another officer who tackled Tyree shortly before Colas fired his gun. But the jury decided only to hold Colas liable and awarded Tyree’s family $1 million in damages at the end of a week-long trial in July 2021 in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.

Tyree — a 57-year-old Army veteran who was in a mental health crisis at the time — was holding a large knife and standing in the backyard of his mother’s house when officers were called to the scene.

After hours of negotiations, Officer Nigal Tuft-Williams ran into the backyard and tackled Tyree from behind.

Colas testified at trial that he shot Tyree after he saw him pick up his knife and raise it toward Tuft-Williams. Colas said he believed his actions were needed to save his fellow officer from being killed or seriously injured. Multiple other officers also testified at the trial and backed up his claims. Body camera video of the incident was played for the jury multiple times.

In a 16-page opinion written by Justice Stephen McCullough, the majority of the court ruled Virginia Beach Circuit Judge Kevin Duffan should have dismissed the case before it was sent to the jury for deliberations, or set the jury’s verdict aside, because there was no evidence presented at trial that contradicted Colas’ claims.

“Although the outcome was tragic, Detective Colas’ decision to fire his weapon, on these specific facts, constituted defense of another as a matter of law,” McCullough wrote. “Nothing in this testimony was inherently incredible, nor was it contradicted by other evidence.”

The 13-page dissenting opinion was written by Justice Wesley Russell, with Chief Justice Bernard Goodwyn and Justice Thomas Mann joining him. The dissenting justices said that while it’s possible a jury could have found Colas was justified in shooting Tyree, a panel also could have decided that he wasn’t. In order to prevail on appeal, Colas needed to show that no juror could have decided his actions weren’t justified under the circumstances, not just some of them, the justices said.

“This high degree of deference to the jury stems not only from the fact that we are reviewing a decision already made, but also because we recognize that the jurors are in a superior position to make the decision in the first instance,” Russell wrote in his dissent, citing previous case law. “They are entitled to such deference because their decisions are made on the basis of “[t]he living record[, which] contains many guideposts to the truth which are not in the printed record; not having seen [the witnesses] ourselves, we should give great weight to the conclusions of those who have seen and heard them.”

The dissenting justices also questioned how much of a threat Tyree really posed to Tucker-Williams. Tyree was much older than the officer and often used a cane or walker to get around. He had his cane with him the day he was killed. Video evidence and testimony at trial showed his movements “were not those of a physically vigorous person,” Russell wrote.

Colas still works as a Virginia Beach police officer. Separate investigations by the Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and the Virginia Beach police department determined the shooting was justified. Tuft-Williams left the department before the case went to trial to take a job with Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

Deputy City Attorney Christopher Boynton applauded the court’s decision in an email Thursday.

“The City and Detective Colas are gratified the Supreme Court of Virginia recognized that Detective Colas was justified in shooting Mr. Tyree in defense of Officer Tuft-Williams,” Boynton wrote.

Kevin Martingayle, who represented the Tyree family, said they were disappointed with the decision and would be exploring further options, including the possibility of seeking a rehearing and reconsideration with the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The Tyree family’s lawsuit is one of at least three filed against Virginia Beach police following a fatal shooting of a citizen over the past several years.

In August 2018, a jury awarded $800,000 to the family of India Kager, who was killed during a SWAT incident. In 2021, Wayne Lynch, the father of a man shot and killed by a Virginia Beach police officer during a chaotic night of violence at the Oceanfront, filed a $50 million lawsuit against the city and the officer. He agreed to a $3 million settlement with the city late last year, but later changed his mind. The case has not yet been resolved.

The incident involving Tyree was not the first time Colas had shot someone while on duty. In 2015, he shot a man involved in an armed robbery and hostage situation at a cellphone store after he said the man pointed a gun at him. That man survived. Colas was cleared of any wrongdoing and received the department’s 2016 Award for Valor.

In 2012, Colas was a rookie officer when he was involved in a bizarre incident on the Eastern Shore that landed him in jail for a few months. Colas told The Pilot in an interview afterward that he started having hallucinations, became paranoid and couldn’t sleep after taking the drug Biaxin for several days to treat bronchitis.

He sped off in his car one day and drove off the road and into a cornfield on the Eastern Shore. When a group of volunteer firefighters arrived to help, Colas, in his delusional state, got into a confrontation with them. When the firefighters tried to take his gun from its holster. Colas stabbed two of them with a knife, picked up his gun and fired at one of the firefighters, but missed. Doctors hired by both the prosecution and defense determined he’d suffered from an “involuntary intoxication” and didn’t understand the nature of what he was doing or the wrongfulness of his acts.

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