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Otto’s much-delayed day in court on hold, again

Tue., June 8, 2010

Wouldn’t it be great if the judicial system moved as efficiently as it does in the movies?

Take that great, old film “The Verdict,” for example. That was a highly complicated medical malpractice case. Yet Paul Newman managed to get it wrapped up favorably in barely over two hours.

Unfortunately, real-life justice is far more tedious than reel-life justice.

I observed this firsthand in a federal courtroom Monday when the much-anticipated Otto Zehm case went on an unexpected sabbatical for at least the next 60 days.

Ay Caramba!

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

This was supposed to be Day One in the monthlong trial of Karl F. Thompson Jr., after all.

The Spokane police officer faces charges for his role in the violent encounter with Zehm, a mentally ill janitor.

By now anyone who reads my column should know what happened that terrible day in 2006.

Zehm, wrongly accused of theft, was clubbed, shocked, hogtied and suffocated inside a North Division convenience store. The last words anyone heard him say were that he was just trying to buy a Snickers candy bar.

The poor guy never regained consciousness after that and died two days later.

A lot of us have been looking forward to the day when this case could be heard in a court of law.

But now comes this 60-plus- day trial delay.

I don’t want to get too boring or accurate – that’s what reporters are for. Basically, prosecutors asked for the delay in order to appeal one of Judge Fred Van Sickle’s evidentiary rulings to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Van Sickle signed off on it, but he clearly wasn’t happy.

One reason was that some 80 potential jurors had come to the federal building from all over Eastern Washington. Juror selection was to begin Monday afternoon.

Before calling it a day, Van Sickle had all the juror candidates brought into the courtroom so he could thank them for the effort and bid them “safe travel.”

That was a class move. But it’s too bad the judge couldn’t have given them each a lovely parting gift. You know, like they do on TV game shows.

JUDGE: “Thanks for coming, folks. And here’s a complimentary Karl Thompson Taser Tag set to take back home. It’s fun for the whole family!”

Yep, I had quite a shocking time in court, all right.

And that was just after I walked into the courtroom shortly after 9 a.m. I gazed over at the defense table. The looks that came back at me seemed to say, “Who let Hitler in?”

I realize I’m not the most popular guy in some circles. But it all became clear a little later when Thompson’s attorney, Carl Oreskovich, sauntered over to me.

“Clark,” he said, “can I look at your hat?”

Ah. It appears that the defense had seen from afar that there was a button pinned to my baseball cap. Someone over there assumed I was idiot enough to wear into this federal courtroom one of the “Otto” buttons that I give away in remembrance of Zehm.

Give me a break.

I picked my cap up from where I had stowed it on the floor ( you don’t wear hats in a courtroom – even I know that) and showed Oreskovich my vintage “I’m 4 Beatles” fan button.

“Aren’t you for Beatles?” I asked him.

Oreskovich assured me he was for Beatles and then walked away.

Lawyers. What sad creatures.

If prosecutors think this appeal to the 9th Circuit could strengthen their case then I hope they get what they’re after.

Sure, it means another delay. But here’s one truth that won’t be erased:

Otto isn’t going anywhere.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at

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