A federal magistrate ruled Thursday that the federal government should pay for the defense of Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. as he faces felony charges stemming from the fatal confrontation with Otto Zehm.
Also Thursday, Thompson appeared in court and pleaded not guilty to violating Zehm’s rights by using unreasonable force and to lying to investigators about the struggle.
During the arraignment, U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno said she had studied private documents submitted by Thompson’s attorneys and decided he’s indigent, clearing the way for a publicly funded defense.
“I am very satisfied that Mr. Thompson qualifies for court-appointed counsel,” Imbrogno said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin objected to federal payments to Carl Oreskovich to serve as Thompson’s attorney, noting that Thompson makes about $80,000 a year, including overtime. Thompson’s assets may include an ownership interest in a $675,000 Hayden home, though it is listed in his ex-wife’s name.
Imbrogno said the indigency matter will be reviewed during and after the case. If any money becomes available to Thompson, he could be on the hook for his legal bills.
Durkin said that while Thompson’s house is in his ex-wife’s name, Idaho is a community property state, meaning most property acquired during marriage is owned jointly by both spouses and divided upon divorce.
“The house is for sale,” Durkin said after the hearing.
Attorney Ronald Van Wert, standing in for Oreskovich, pointed out that Thompson is no longer working as a patrol officer. He is working a desk job and is not eligible for overtime to add to his income of $73,000 a year.
Jeffry Finer, of the public-interest law firm Center for Justice, said he agreed with Imbrogno’s ruling. The Center for Justice represents Zehm’s mother in a federal civil suit against Thompson and the city.
“It’s an expensive (criminal) case,” Finer said. “It could cost $150,000 to $200,000 to defend this, which would be a devastating burden for most anyone. A guy can have a job and a house and still be indigent.”
Imbrogno set a signature bond of $50,000 for Thompson. The bond doesn’t require Thompson to pay any money upfront, but he would forfeit that amount if he flees before trial.
Imbrogno also restricted Thompson’s travel to North Idaho and the Eastern District of Washington. She ordered him to surrender all firearms used at work and at home.
Van Wert said Thompson had already turned over his guns based on a prior agreement.
“Mr. Thompson is a protector of the community, not a threat to the community,” Van Wert said. “He is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He has an exemplary 40-year law enforcement career. To face criminal charges is devastating to him.”
A federal grand jury indicted Thompson on June 19 on two felony counts connected to the March 18, 2006, confrontation with Zehm, 36. The mentally ill janitor was beaten with a baton, shocked with a Taser several times and hogtied at a Spokane convenience store.
Responding to erroneous claims that Zehm had stolen money from two young women, Thompson was the first of seven officers on the scene. Video surveillance showed that Thompson approached Zehm from behind and immediately began striking him with a police baton. Zehm died two days later as a result of the struggle.
Thompson was the only officer charged. Police official have said they believe he is the first Spokane officer ever to face federal charges.
More than a dozen fellow officers in civilian clothing attended the hearing, said Dennis “Ty” Snider, a police union secretary. “We’re here for support,” he said, declining further comment.
Thompson faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a maximum $250,000 fine if convicted for lying to investigators and up to 10 years and the same maximum fine for the “unreasonable use of force” charge.
Thompson declined comment through his attorney.