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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County jury awards $19.5 million to former sheriff’s deputy and his wife in defamation case

The Spokane County Courthouse and jail are seen in 2019. A Superior Court jury on Friday awarded $19 million in damages to a former sheriff's deputy who sued Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich for defamation.   (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County has to pay a former Sheriff’s Office deputy and his wife $19.5 million in damages after a Superior Court jury on Friday determined he was wrongfully fired and defamed by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.

Knezovich fired Sgt. Jeff Thurman in 2019. In a news conference, the sheriff said he made the decision after an internal affairs investigation found Thurman used the N-word while on the phone with other deputies, talked about killing Black people and sexually harassed a female deputy.

Thurman sued Knezovich later that year. In his lawsuit, the 18-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office challenged Knezovich’s characterizations of the investigation, said the story of his use of a racial epithet was fabricated by his accuser and argued he was the victim of racial discrimination himself in his dismissal.

After a four-week trial, the Superior Court jury sided with Thurman on Friday and ordered Spokane County to pay him and his wife, Kaycie Thurman, $19.5 million. They deliberated for less than a day.

Jeff Thurman will receive $2.5 million for lost wages and $12 million for emotional damages. Kaycie Thurman will receive $5 million for emotional damages and loss of consortium.

Thurman, surrounded after the verdict by relieved and teary-eyed family members, said in a written statement that the last few years have been “an incredibly long road” for his family.

“I am so thankful for my community standing up for me, and seeing the truth of what happened,” he wrote. “I really care about this community and serving citizens, and I wish I was still doing that out in a patrol car.”

Mary Schultz, Thurman’s attorney, said in an email Friday afternoon that the Thurmans received the damages they deserved.

“The tragedy of this is that one of this community’s best, most heroic, and most decorated law enforcement officers was removed from our community’s law enforcement team,” Schultz said. “As one deputy testified, our community is less safe without Sgt. Thurman on patrol, and in spite of the damages, that will remain sad for all of us.”

Schultz has argued that Knezovich misrepresented the results of the internal affairs investigation and shared an “entirely false story to the media” during his 2019 news conference.

Knezovich strongly denies that assertion.

“That report is public record,” he said. “I challenge anybody to read that report and tell me where anything was misrepresented.”

The sheriff, who is retiring at the end of December, said his attorneys will appeal the verdict.

“I respect the jury’s work; I totally disagree with their outcome,” Knezovich said. “I handled it the way I thought it needed to be done.”