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Sirens & Gavels

Posts tagged: Civil Rights

DOJ launches probe of Seattle police

SEATTLE (AP) — The Justice Department today launched a formal civil rights investigation of the Seattle Police Department following the fatal shooting of a homeless woodcarver and other incidents of force used against minority suspects.

Seattle U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan and the assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, Thomas E. Perez, held a conference call Thursday morning to discuss the investigation. Durkan previously said her office was reviewing the Seattle Police Department's actions.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and 34 other community groups called for the inquiry after a Seattle officer shot and killed Native American woodcarver John T. Williams after he crossed a street downtown. The officer who shot Williams, Ian Birk, resigned from the force but was not charged criminally.

Other incidents captured on surveillance or police-cruiser video include officers using racial slurs and stomping on a prone Latino man; an officer kicking a non-resisting black youth in a convenience store; and officers tackling and kicking a black man who showed up in a police evidence room to pick up belongings after he was mistakenly released from jail.

ACLU of Washington spokesman Doug Honig welcomed the announcement.

“We think the DOJ has a lot of experience and expertise in dealing with situations like this around the country,” he said. “Our hope is that they can make recommendations that will help the city of Seattle curtail the use of excessive force in the future.”

Court: Zehm’s innocence not admissible

A jury likely will not learn that Otto Zehm was innocent of a crime when he was confronted by a Spokane police officer in a fatal encounter five years ago, federal appeals court judges ruled Thursday. 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals supported a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle to exclude from the trial of Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. the evidence that Zehm had not committed a crime prior to the incident on March 18, 2006.

Carl Oreskovich, one of the attorneys defending Thompson against the felony charges of excessive force and lying to investigators, said he was “obviously” pleased with the decision.

Read Tom Clouse's full story here.

9th Circuit hears arguments in Zehm case

SEATTLE — A jury should be told Otto Zehm hadn’t committed any crime before he was beaten by a Spokane police officer who claims Zehm was aggressive and defiant when confronted in a North Side convenience store, a federal appeals court panel was told Monday.

Federal prosecutors have appealed a pretrial ruling by U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle in Spokane that excludes evidence of Zehm’s innocence as prejudicial and inflammatory. They told a three-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals it would help the jury decide whether Thompson was lying when he later described Zehm with words like sinister, aggressive, defiant and resolute.

But an attorney for Officer Karl Thompson said the trial judge is right to keep such information from a jury when the trial starts, because Thompson didn’t know those facts when he approached Zehm. It’s inflammatory and could prejudice the jury against the officer, attorney Carl Oreskovich said.

Read the rest of Jim Camden's story here.

Editor links ex-Klansman to ‘64 murder

FERRIDAY, La. (AP) — Arthur Leonard Spencer says sure, he made some mistakes back when he was a “snot-nose kid,” like joining the Ku Klux Klan. But murder?

  No, the 71-year-old Spencer says, a small-town weekly paper got it wrong when it reported recently that he may have been involved in burning down a black man's shoe repair shop in 1964 with the owner inside.

“I feel sorry for his family, but I didn't have nothing to do with it,” said Spencer, pictured last August.

  No law enforcement agency has named Spencer as a suspect. But for the dead man's family, still praying for justice 46 years later, it's a welcome if not entirely solid lead.

The allegations were reported by the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, whose editor, Stanley Nelson, has dedicated the past four years of his life to an all-consuming investigation of the blaze that killed 51-year-old Frank Morris. (Morris is pictured above, fourth from right wearing a visor, in front of his shoe repair shop in the 1950s.)

Nelson (right) has written more than 100 stories about the case, culminating in an article that quoted Spencer's estranged son, his ex-wife and her brother as saying the former Klansman confessed to taking part in the crime.

Morris' slaying is one of more than 100 unsolved cases from the civil rights era that the FBI reopened in recent years. But for Nelson, the Morris case was unique, because it happened in his town. He has pledged to solve the crime once and for all.

The motive for the attack is not clear.

By most accounts Morris was well liked around town by both his black and white customers. He was separated or divorced and lived alone in a back room at his shop.

He was not known to be actively involved in the civil rights movement, which made black men targets in those days. And FBI documents indicate at least one witness debunked rumors that Morris had courted white women — a virtual death sentence in that era. Still, just being a successful black businessman with a white clientele and having contact with white women was enough to enrage many people back then.

Others have speculated that Morris may have been targeted for refusing to do shoe repairs for a corrupt sheriff's deputy, who wanted the services for free.

Whatever the case, heavily censored FBI files from the time paint a chilling picture of Morris' death.
Read the rest of the story by Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr by clicking the link below.

Officer’s trial over Zehm death delayed

The criminal trial of Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. has been delayed again.

U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle agreed to a request by defense attorney Carl Oreskovich to change the date of the trial despite objections from a federal prosecutor.

The trial, stemming from the 2006 confrontation between Thompson and Otto Zehm that resulted in Zehm’s death, has been moved to Oct. 11 from March 7.

The trial was put on hold last summer after prosecutors asked the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a ruling by Van Sickle that prevented them from presenting evidence that Zehm had not committed a crime on March 18, 2006, when he was confronted by Thompson in a Spokane convenience store.

Thompson struck Zehm with a police baton and shocked him with a Taser during the confrontation, which included six other officers.

Attorneys for both sides will travel to Seattle on Feb. 7 to present oral arguments to a panel of appellate judges.
  

Officer’s lawyer asks for Zehm trial delay

An attorney representing Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. is asking a federal judge to postpone the March 7 trial while an appeals court considers questions over the admissibility of certain information about the fatal encounter with Otto Zehm .

Carl Oreskovich (right) wrote in the request that court officials say it generally takes the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals three months to a year to issue its written decisions. Oreskovich and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin have submitted lengthy written arguments and are scheduled to appear in Seattle on Feb. 7 to present oral arguments to a 9th Circuit panel on the pre-trial admissibility dispute.

“While there is no way to predict a timetable as to when the Ninth Circuit will issue its written opinion, it is highly unlikely that a decision will be available prior to the March 7, 2011 trial date,” Oreskovich wrote.

Federal prosecutors are asking appellate judges to overturn a decision by U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle to bar evidence showing that Zehm, a 36-year-old mentally ill janitor (pictured left), had not committed a crime on March 18, 2006, when he was beaten and shocked with a Taser by Thompson.

Oreskovich said the trial may include up to 100 witnesses.

“Many of these witnesses will need to be interviewed again prior to the time of trial,” Oreskovich wrote. “This process will take an enormous amount of time and resources, all of which will be wasted again if the trial date is not moved.”

Federal prosecutors have not yet filed a response.

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