Things could have ended better for Devere D. Thomas, but then, considering how quickly events got out of control on Feb. 2, it could have been worse.
Thomas, 21, was sentenced to nine months in jail Wednesday for what started out as a parking ticket. But he also survived being shot by a police officer and he had a felony charge against him dismissed – a charge that could have meant seven years in prison.
Thomas's attorney Nelson Torre said the entire case was the result of “escalation, lack of tolerance on both sides. and miscommunication.”
“It’s one of those cases that is difficult for all involved,” Torre said, calling it “a microcosm of issues” that now are drawing national attention.
It happened in a matter of seconds on Feb. 2, when an NFTA officer saw Thomas’ car stopped in a bus stop near a Family Dollar store near Main and West Utica. When the car pulled away, the officer followed, and a block later, when Thomas pulled over at a Burger King, the officer flashed his lights.
According to Torre, surveillance cameras caught “the essence” of what happened next, in images but not sound, as another officer arrives and the first officer is talking to Thomas, the driver.
After some possibly heated back-and-forth, the driver’s side window rolls up, Torre said.
"Then the back-up officer drew his weapon from his holster and fired through the windshield,” Torre said.
That, Torre said, is when a frightened Thomas tried to drive away “through several gunshots.”
An officer standing on the driver's side jumps back as Thomas pulls out, a gunshot wound in his hand. His brother, who was in the car with him, was uninjured and no officers were struck by the vehicle.
Original reports of the incident said that Thomas was fired upon after he tried to run over a police officer with his car, and NFTA Officer Robert Gawlick appeared in court for the sentencing to tell the judge that he feared for his life that night.
"I understand the judicial process, but he put myself and all the civilians in jeopardy," the officer said.
“My client had no criminal intent that night," Torre said. "He was making a purchase at Family Dollar. Do I say the officer was too quick to draw his weapon and use deadly force? Yes, I do.”
But Torre also agreed that Thomas should not have rolled up his window just because he felt the stop was unreasonable for a parking offense.
Even so, Torre added, “I don’t think he should be punished harshly for being shot,” and asked Judge Kenneth F. Case to consider probation.
Before pronouncing sentence, the judge pointed out that the entire episode could have been avoided.
“This started as a vehicle and traffic parking violation and escalated into what brings us here today,” Case said. “We have a police officer who feels he was in danger and others who were endangered, and you got shot,” he told Thomas.
The judge said he had watched the video, which in his view provided as many questions as answers, and felt that the plea to the misdemeanor of fleeing from an officer was the correct way to resolve the charges.
The judge opted against probation, he said, because Thomas already had violated probation for his only previous conviction, for petit larceny, because of marijuana use. Case ordered the nine-month sentence with credit for any time Thomas has already spent in custody.