The defense tried to persuade a jury today that Bill Thomas didn't have a knife or he really didn't intend to harm a police officer who showed up at his front door the morning of March 16, 2016, but jurors were unswayed. It took about an hour in deliberations for jurors to find Thomas guilty of third-degree criminal possession of a weapon and menacing a police officer.
Thomas faces up to seven years in jail and is scheduled to be sentenced at 9:30 a.m., July 7, following the one-day trial.
The case against Thomas began around 4 a.m. about 16 months ago when his brother, Rand Thomas, summoned police to their residence at 252 State St. with a 9-1-1 call.
Jurors heard a recording of the call.
During the call, Rand was calm and didn't mention a specific threat against him. He said his relative was giving him trouble, that "he's been doing it a lot of years," and in response to questions from a dispatcher, he said Bill Thomas may have been drinking, and when asked if there were weapons in the house, he said there were a lot of knives in the kitchen.
When Officer Peter Flanagan, Batavia PD, knocked on the door, Rand answered. What happened next occurred in the space of about three seconds, according to Flanagan:
- Rand told Bill that the police wanted to talk to him;
- Flanagan started to step into the house, through the partially opened door;
- The room was dark, except for the light from a TV set;
- He saw Bill about 12 to 15 feet away across the room;
- He looked at Bill's hands by his side and saw an eight-inch kitchen knife in his right hand;
- Instantly, Bill started toward Flanagan, moving quickly;
- Flanagan said he thought Bill posed a potentially mortal threat and began to draw his service weapon;
- He yelled, "drop the knife";
- Rand exclaimed, "Oh, shit!" and stepped between Bill and the officer on his way out the door;
- Flanagan decided he had no longer had the opportunity for a clear and clean shot at Bill and decided to back out the door;
- Bill got close enough to Flanagan, he said, that he could have grabbed him or touched him or even cut him, but didn't touch him;
- When Bill reached the door, he closed it, and Flanagan said he heard the tumbler of the deadbolt lock snap, locking the door.
Flanagan informed dispatch they had a barricaded subject with a knife. He asked Rand if anybody else was in the house and Rand said his mother was upstairs in her bedroom. He instructed Rand to call her on his mobile phone and ask her to lock her door. During the call, Flanagan testified that he overheard Rand tell the person on the other end of the line, "Bill came at us with a knife."
Rand did not testify. In fact, District Attorney Lawrence Friedman only called two witnesses, Flanagan and Sgt. Eric Bolles, who was the second officer on the scene. Defense attorney Jamie Welch, who was assisted by Public Defender Jerry Ader, did not call on anybody to testify. Bill did not testify.
The jury, all white, mostly middle-aged men and women, with a couple older and a couple of younger people in the box, was attentive throughout the trial. Thomas, dressed in a white shirt and dark pants, his long, gray-tinged hair in a ponytail, was also attentive but showed no reactions to anything that was said during testimony and attorney statements.
Wyoming County's Judge Michael Mohun presided.
Bill Thomas has been held in the Genesee County Jail since March 16, 2016. His case has gone on an inordinately long time without a trial, in part because his case took a couple of unique turns.
First, he pled guilty. Then he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea, which was a request that was denied. He changed attorneys at this time. Then a discrepancy was discovered in his prior guilty plea, giving him the opportunity to withdraw his plea, which he did. The case subsequently proceeded on the legal path toward going to trial.
At his pre-trial evidentiary hearing, we learned that police did not recover a knife from the crime scene.
That was a focus of today's cross-examination of Flanagan and Bolles. The defense attorney elicited from both officers that neither looked for a knife nor requested a warrant to look for a knife.
Flanagan testified he was certain that Thomas held an eight-inch kitchen knife with the blade pointed out. He said he saw it even in the dim lighting conditions.
"I looked down immediately at his hands because we're taught that is where the dangers are," Flanagan said.
The close distance between Thomas and Flanagan, the officer said, is a key reason he felt he was in mortal danger. Officers are taught that any subject with a sharp object is a potentially mortal threat if they are standing within 21 feet of the officer because the amount of time it takes a typical adult to traverse 21 feet vs. the amount of time it takes an officer to draw his weapon.
Near the end of that hour that Thomas was in the house with police outside, a family member convinced Thomas to come downstairs.
By that time, officers had found that the sliding glass doors on the outside of a converted garage were unlocked. They were able to open them and draw the blinds wide open and had the room fully illuminated with external lights by the time Thomas came downstairs.
As more police arrived on scene, including deputies and troopers, Bolles said he set up a perimeter.
"I wanted to slow things down," Bolles said. "I didn't want to encounter the subject and make things worse."
Jurors were not told that the Emergency Response Team, armed with long rifles, had been dispatched to the scene.
City fire was staged on Douglas Avenue in case there was a need to rescue Bill and Rand's mother from the second floor, and a Mercy EMS was staged on standby.
When Thomas came downstairs, Bolles was in the room with his Taser drawn. There were other officers nearby, he said, "providing lethal cover."
Bolles said Thomas was ordered to show his hands, which he did, then he was ordered to put his hands in the air and turn around.
"He ignored our commands," Bolles said. "He appeared to be looking past the officers and out the window."
Bolles deployed his Taser and Thomas dropped to the floor.
In his closing remarks, Welch argued for reasonable doubt because officers did not look for a knife and if a knife had been present, it would have been easy enough for the prosecution to supply it as evidence for the jury, he said.
He also questioned Flanagan's account of the incident based on the fact that Flanagan had only been a police officer for three years at the time of the incident, that he was five hours into his shift without having slept in 12 hours, the low light, and the speed of events.
"It doesn't make sense that that much could have happened in that short of time," Welch said.
He also suggested that when Thomas moved toward the door, it wasn't the police officer he was advancing toward, but his brother.
Friedman refuted this points in his closing statement.
He argued that the television provided enough light for Flanagan to have seen the knife, that Flanagan was certainly experienced enough for the job and the fact he had been up for 12 hours was irrelevant.
"It should tell you what a severe situation this was when Officer Flanagan mentions the degree of danger he felt that he was ready to shoot Bill Thomas to protect himself," Friedman said.
As for the knife, the jurors heard the 9-1-1 tape where Rand Thomas said there were a lot of knives in the kitchen and that Bill Thomas had close to an hour inside of the residence to return the knife to the kitchen or put it elsewhere in the house.
Even if the officers had produced a knife after a search, what would it have proven? Friedman asked.
"Then the defense's response would have been, 'so what, they had a lot of knives in the kitchen,' " Friedman said. "It would have been meaningless if they had searched the house and found the knife."