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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Attorneys make closing arguments in defamation lawsuit against Spokane County Sheriff’s Office

The Spokane County Courthouse is backdropped by a brilliant sunset in June 2018.   (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

Attorneys made closing arguments Thursday in a four-week civil trial over claims made by a former Spokane County sheriff’s deputy that Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich mischaracterized the results of an internal affairs investigation in a news conference following his firing.

Former sergeant Jeff Thurman was fired in 2019 after an internal investigation found Thurman spoke of killing Black people and sexually harassed a female deputy on his helicopter crew, Knezovich told the public at a news conference. Thurman filed a lawsuit later that year saying the complaints weren’t true, Knezovich had defamed him and fired him because of his race, causing him emotional distress.

Thurman – an 18-year veteran of the sheriff’s office who served on the helicopter crew and worked as a police dog handler in Spokane Valley – was accused of starting a phone conversation with another deputy by asking: “You ready to kill some (N-word) tonight or what?”

The deputy who brought the complaint forward, Andrew Richmond, who is Black, later left the sheriff’s office and filed a lawsuit against the department for failing to protect him from retaliation. That lawsuit is still pending in federal court.

While investigating the initial claim, investigators interviewed a female deputy who said Thurman had made sexually inappropriate comments toward her, which Knezovich called sexual harassment. 

For the last month, a jury has heard evidence from both sides before attorneys laid out their closing arguments Thursday.

Thurman’s attorney, Mary Schultz said Richmond’s story was full of holes, noting he struggled to pinpoint the time frame of the incident when he first reported it to investigators. She argued Richmond made up the whole story to prevent an investigation into his own misconduct.

“There were so many fast statements that were made by Mr. Richmond in his initial interview,” Schultz said, calling the internal affairs investigation lackluster.

Richmond wasn’t investigated for those false statements, though, a clear showing that the sheriff’s office applied their policies to people differently based on their race, she said. Thurman is white.

“The sheriff made this entire situation about race,” she argued.

Knezovich knew the story was false when he held the news conference, she said. Knezovich was unprofessional at the news conference, she said, giving viewers of the livestream the impression Thurman was a racist and sexual harasser despite those claims being based on little evidence.

The news conference was a “stunt,” Schultz said.

She said she had hoped Knezovich would at least be apologetic for his unprofessional manner while at trial, but when he testified Wednesday, she said he revictimized Thurman.

“Mr. Knezovich simply got up on the witness stand and did it all over again,” Schultz said.

Defense attorney Sean Jackson said in order to believe Schultz’s story, jurors must think there was a massive conspiracy and cover-up at the sheriff’s office.

“The sheriff stood to gain absolutely nothing from losing one of his best deputies,” Jackson said.

The internal affairs investigation into the allegation was thorough, Jackson said. The investigator interviewed 13 people, some of them twice. While Richmond may not be a great historian, Jackson said, he was eventually able to figure out the date of the phone call incident in 2016.

Eyewitness testimony, cell phone and police records support Richmond’s story, he argued.

Multiple other deputies testified they had heard Thurman use the N-word before. One deputy said Thurman would use it while talking about the Black Lives Matter movement.

One juror Thursday wore a Black Lives Matter pin on his sweater while listening to closing arguments.

Jackson said the investigation was not about Richmond and that Knezovich welcomed and even encouraged other deputies to bring forward any evidence they might have against Richmond, but no one ever did.

Finally, Jackson said Thurman never denied making the statements, only saying he didn’t recall making them.

He asked the jury to find against Thurman, noting there’s evidence the statements Knezovich made are true, which is a defense against defamation.

Schultz said Thurman and his wife have suffered significant harm, embarrassment and pain from this situation. She asked the jury for more than $507,000 for past wages, more than $2.3 million for future wages, along with $10 million for Thurman’s nonmonetary damages and another $2 million for his wife’s pain and suffering, for a total of more than $14.8 million.

The jury began deliberating Thursday at about 2:30 p.m. and had not reached a verdict by the end of the day. They will resume deliberations Friday morning.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify what the female deputy told investigators Jeff Thurman said and who called those statements sexual harassment.