The Spokane County medical examiner ruled Tuesday that Otto Zehm died as a result of homicide following his March 18 confrontation with Spokane police officers.
While she refused to make her full autopsy report public, Medical Examiner Sally Aiken said the manner of Zehm’s death was homicide. She listed the official cause of death as “hypoxic encephalopathy due to cardio pulmonary arrest while restrained in a prone position for excited delirium.”
That basically means that Zehm died from a lack of oxygen to the brain due to heart failure while being restrained on his stomach.
But interim Police Chief Jim Nicks said Aiken’s report, which he also refused to release in its totality, supports earlier statements that his officers followed department procedure during the encounter with the 36-year-old mentally disabled janitor.
“I’m very comfortable that the officers confronted a hostile individual, somebody who wasn’t listening for whatever reason. They had the duty and obligation to stop and detain him,” Nicks said.
Zehm died March 20, two days after the encounter at a Zip Trip convenience store on North Division Street.
Spokane police Officers Karl Thompson and Steven Braun Jr. were the first of seven officers who arrived at the store to investigate a report of a possible robbery.
Both Braun and Thompson used their Tasers, and Thompson also used a police baton in efforts to restrain Zehm, police said. They eventually “hobbled” Zehm by binding his ankles to his wrists.
“Apparently the restraints were considered to be a factor” in Zehm’s death, Nicks said. “They used the minimal amount of force necessary to detain Mr. Zehm. And I think the autopsy report revealed that. There are no obvious injuries to Mr. Zehm.”
County Prosecutor Steve Tucker said he expects to have the investigation into Zehm’s death to his desk sometime this week. It will take another two or three weeks for Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll to review the case before Tucker makes the final determination.
“I’ll get it out of there as soon as possible,” Tucker said.
He pointed out that having “homicide” as a manner of death can result in only one of four findings: that the death was excusable, justifiable, negligent or murder.
“I’m going to have to review … the 911 tape, the videotape, statements and make a decision,” he said.
Nicks previously said the Police Department would release a copy of a videotape that apparently shows the encounter between Zehm and officers. But Tucker said the tape is evidence and has so far refused to release it.
Nicks said the videotape simply shows “an altercation in the Zip Trip.”
“That’s the best I can tell you,” Nicks said. “I think it’s pretty clear when you see it that the officers had their hands full.”
Aiken couldn’t make her report final until she received the toxicology reports, Nicks said. Those reports showed that Zehm had no illegal or prescribed drugs in his system.
Zehm’s mother, Ann Zehm, had no comment through her attorney, Breean Beggs of the Center for Justice.
Ann Zehm “is planning on sitting down with the medical examiner and learning from her firsthand, in lay people’s terms, what (Aiken) found and what she considered,” Beggs said.
Nicks previously said that Zehm either “attacked” the officers or at least refused to comply with their commands. Nicks said Tuesday that Zehm “immediately engaged” the first officer.
“Whether he lunged or turned quickly on him, whatever the case may be, the officer clearly felt there was a risk there,” Nicks said. “The suspect had a large two-liter bottle of pop. The officer had to take all those things into consideration as far as what level of threat this might be.
“But the bottom line is they had a duty and an obligation to detain and control him.”
Nicks said Zehm’s death is similar to that of John W. Stanley, 52, who died just days before Zehm following a fight with three people – not police – at a Spokane motel.
As in Zehm’s case, Stanley exhibited signs of excited delirium, which Nicks defined as “a state of extreme mental and physiological excitement,” characterized by a number of symptoms, including extreme agitation, hypothermia, hostility, and exceptional strength and endurance.
The manner of death in Stanley’s case was also listed as homicide. The prosecutor’s office on Tuesday received the medical examiner’s report on Stanley and has not yet announced whether charges will be filed.
Police officials are distributing information about excited delirium to officers.
“We’re going to be doing more research on this and plan to incorporate it into our quarterly training for all staff as soon as possible,” said police spokesman Cpl. Tom Lee.
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