September 23, 2006 in City

Caruso criticizes Zehm case delay

Thomas Clouse Staff writer
 
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Democratic challenger Bob Caruso ripped Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker on Friday, saying the Republican incumbent has waited long enough to decide whether to file any criminal charges in connection with Otto Zehm’s death following a struggle with seven police officers back in March.

The comments came in response to new reports that Tucker wants more time to review evidence in the case, which is now six months old, but that he hopes to have a decision before the Nov. 7 general election.

Zehm “needs justice,” Caruso said. “He was a human being and not a piece of garbage. The family and the community of Spokane need justice, and we are not getting it from Tucker. What is he waiting for?”

Tucker dismissed any suggestion Friday that he’s trying to delay a tough decision.

“The people of Spokane County are going to be allowed to pick a prosecutor who can either listen to the radio and read the newspaper and make a decision based on that, or one who can be patient and wait for all the information is in and the facts are known to make a decision,” he said. “That is all I am trying to do.”

The 36-year-old mentally ill janitor died two days after a March 18 confrontation with Spokane police officers at the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division St. Zehm stopped breathing about three minutes after one of the officers placed an oxygen non-rebreather mask over his face and he never regained consciousness.

Tucker said Thursday that he asked Medical Examiner Sally Aiken to take a second look at her ruling on the cause of death, which essentially was homicide by heart failure, to determine if the mask contributed to Zehm’s death. The study indicated the mask did not cause Zehm to stop breathing, but lawyers for Zehm’s family question the conclusion.

The case also is being reviewed by the FBI.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Caruso said. “That man’s … relatives are suffering and hurting and being drawn through an agonizing political process for somebody’s political gain.”

Caruso, 68, who retired 10 years ago after managing a local carpet business, has what appears to be an insurmountable lead over fellow Democrat Jim Reierson. Both men complained during the campaign of what they perceived as Tucker’s slow or incorrect decisions on recent controversial cases involving local law enforcement.

“I think he’s posturing to hit a home run late in the ninth inning to show people what he is doing for them this week,” said Caruso, who finished law school in 1999 and has never worked as a prosecutor.

Tucker agrees with Caruso on one point: The Zehm case “has been tough on everybody. I haven’t made my mind up yet and I’m trying to get a better picture through the video,” he said.

Tucker said he met Friday with new Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and told her he expects to get the enhanced video back within days.

“She thinks her department has a great relationship with us,” Tucker said. “She wants to know good and bad and when things aren’t right. That’s the first chief to meet with all the supervisors and me and ask to see how things are going. That’s a good sign.”

However, it’s Tucker’s relationship with law enforcement that Caruso and Reierson have questioned. Both candidates say Tucker, who worked as a Washington State Patrol trooper before he became a lawyer, is too inclined to give officers a pass in cases where normal citizens would be charged with crimes.

“He refuses to give justice,” Caruso said. “It’s because of people like Mr. Reierson and myself who are willing to stand up and change things that Mr. Tucker is not going to get away with things like this anymore.”


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