Officer Karl Thompson was accused of brutally beating Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old schizophrenic man, and then lying about it to investigators. Zehm died from his injuries two days after the encounter.
Prosecutors said Thompson disgraced his badge with his actions, while the defense maintained the veteran officer used his training and experience to make a split-second decision to protect himself and the public.
Thompson was not charged with killing Zehm. Federal jurors instead found him guilty of violating Zehm’s civil rights by use of excessive force. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Thompson showed no visible reaction as the verdict was read. One of his lawyers, Carl Oreskovich, called the decision devastating and said he would appeal.
“We think we represented an innocent man,” Oreskovich said. “This is not over.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin thanked the jurors for their service and said winning a conviction against an officer of the law was “not something we take any pride in.”
Zehm was the subject of a police search after two teenagers reported he might have stolen money at an ATM, though it was later revealed he had done nothing wrong.Thompson was the first officer to respond and found Zehm entering the store March 18, 2006. Surveillance video shows Thompson rushing up to Zehm, knocking him to the ground and repeatedly striking him with a police baton.
Thompson, 64, has more than 40 years of law enforcement experience.
According to police, officers later hogtied and sat on Zehm, who died without regaining consciousness.
A medical examiner concluded Zehm died from lack of oxygen to the brain due to heart failure while being restrained on his stomach. No other officers were charged.
Liz Moore, of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, hailed the verdict but said more changes are needed in the Spokane Police Department.
“It’s a shame it took several investigations over five years for anybody to be held accountable over Otto Zehm’s death,” she said.
Otto Zehm case timeline from the Spokane Spokesman Review
• March 18, 2006: Otto Zehm, 36, a mentally ill and unemployed janitor, is beaten, Tasered and hogtied inside a Zip Trip convenience store by seven Spokane police officers after being wrongly identified as a suspect in a possible theft. Acting police Chief Jim Nicks says Zehm was combative and “lunged” at the first officer on the scene, Karl Thompson. Officers say Zehm has a prior arrest for assaulting a police officer.
• March 20, 2006: Zehm dies at Deaconess Medical Center. Police acknowledge that the potential theft report that led to the confrontation was unfounded.
• March 22, 2006: Thompson gives a two-hour, off-the-record interview to Detective Terry Ferguson. They return, after lunch, for a taped interview in which Thompson describes Zehm as having refused orders to drop a plastic soda bottle, prompting the use of a police baton to ward off an expected assault.
• March 23, 2006: Acting Chief Nicks reviews security video from the Zip Trip with detectives. He cites the ongoing investigation in refusing requests to make copies of the video footage publicly available.
• March 29, 2006: Detective Ferguson obtains a statement from an ambulance technician who wrote that Thompson told Officer Tim Moses he’d hit Zehm in the head and neck with his baton. That report – which indicates Thompson may have used unjustified lethal force – was never turned over to county prosecutors.
• May 30, 2006: Spokane County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken lists “homicide” as the cause of Zehm’s death.
• May 31, 2006: Detective Ferguson finishes her investigation into the fatality, concluding that none of the seven officers who struggled with Zehm committed a crime.
• June 7, 2006: Attorneys representing Zehm’s family, after a private viewing of the still-sealed security video, demand an official retraction of the city’s description of events.
• July 13, 2006: Under threat of lawsuit, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker authorizes public release of the security video, which shows no “lunge” and appears to contradict other key assertions in the city’s official version of events.
• July 14, 2006: Nicks publicly backs Thompson’s actions despite acknowledging his previous incorrect descriptions of the events. “As time goes on, and we talk to more and more people, it supports Karl’s account of the incident,” Nicks said.
• July 17, 2006: Mayor Dennis Hession announces that he’ll seek an outside agency to investigate the Zehm case. Hession also discloses that the FBI, despite its earlier denial, is in fact conducting a civil rights investigation into Zehm’s death.
• Aug. 3, 2006: After learning that some Spokane media outlets are pursuing footage of additional security camera angles, Nicks instructs Ferguson to review the tapes again. Within the hour, Ferguson tells Nicks that a fourth camera angle shows Zehm holding a Pepsi bottle, which did not appear in any other camera angle. The video shows Zehm on his back and using the bottle to protect his face from Officer Thompson’s blows.
• October 2008: Federal investigators inform Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick of their criminal investigation.
• Oct. 20, 2008: The City Council votes to pay attorney Carl Oreskovich to represent the city and its officers in the claim filed by the attorneys for Zehm’s mother and estate. At about the same time, Oreskovich says Thompson hired him to represent him in the criminal matter.
• March 1, 2009: Mayor Mary Verner and Chief Kirkpatrick publicly declare their support for Officer Thompson. “I’ve looked into the details surrounding this incident,” Verner says in an interview with The Spokesman-Review, “and I just don’t think the behavior of the officer rose to a criminal behavior.” Says Kirkpatrick: Thompson “has my unequivocal support. Based on all the information and evidence I have reviewed, I have determined that Officer Karl Thompson acted consistent with the law.”
• March 14, 2009: Attorneys representing Zehm’s estate and mother file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city.
• June 18, 2009: The city files its answer to the civil lawsuit, essentially blaming Zehm for his own death. “Any injury or damage suffered by Mr. Zehm was caused solely by reason of his conduct and willful resistance,” the response said.
• June 19, 2009: A federal grand jury meeting in Spokane indicts Thompson on charges of using unreasonable force and lying to investigators.
• July 9, 2009: U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno declares Thompson indigent and appoints Oreskovich to represent him in the criminal case, despite Thompson’s $73,000 annual salary and interest in a $675,000 home in Hayden.
• Oct. 21, 2009: U.S. District Judge Lonny Suko puts the civil case on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case against Thompson.
• Aug. 5, 2011: Documents are filed in U.S. District Court signed by now-Assistant Chief Nicks indicating that Thompson violated several use-of-force policies in his initial contact with Zehm and that the department’s investigation into the fatality was poorly done.
• Aug. 9: Verner announces that the city will review its legal strategy as a result of the declaration by Nicks.
• Sept. 9: Verner announces a “thorough internal and external review” of Zehm’s death would start when the legal cases are finished.
• Sept. 13: Nicks announces his retirement; it will coincide with Kirkpatrick’s previously announced departure at the beginning of the year.
• Sept. 20: Officer Sandra McIntyre is identified as being under federal investigation and facing a potential charge of obstruction of justice in connection with the Zehm confrontation.
• Oct. 4: A judge moves Thompson’s trial to Yakima because of “intense” media coverage.
• Oct. 12: After jury selection, Thompson’s trial begins.
• Nov. 2: A jury convicts Thompson of needlessly beating Otto Zehm and then lying about it to cover up his actions.