May 15, 2010 in City

Second officer faces charges in Zehm case

Lawyer says client got federal notice
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

A second Spokane police officer has received a letter indicating that federal prosecutors intend to seek further charges in connection with the Otto Zehm investigation.

Spokane attorney Rob Cossey said he represents three or four officers as a federal grand jury continues to gather information in the case. He confirmed that one of his clients has received what’s known as a target letter, which essentially informs the person that federal officials intend to charge him or her with a crime.

“The person is right square in the sights of the U.S. attorney’s office. I can’t tell you the name of the person,” Cossey said. “It’s more definite than a target letter. We will know more next week for sure.”

Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick refused to answer questions about the officer or target letter. “It’s not my case. On Otto Zehm, I’m not going to comment.”

Meanwhile, U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle on Friday postponed a major hearing set for Monday and announced that he has asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to appoint a judge from outside the district to decide whether a conflict exists with how the city has handled the defense of Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr.

Thompson is charged with using excessive force and lying to investigators following the March 18, 2006, confrontation with the 36-year-old mentally ill janitor, who had erroneously been suspected of stealing money from an ATM. During the confrontation, Thompson beat Zehm with a police baton and shocked him with a Taser, and several other officers helped hog-tie him for 17 minutes before he stopped breathing. Zehm died two days later.

Van Sickle said the trial remains set for June 2, but a delay could occur because Van Sickle won’t decide dozens of pretrial motions until after the new judge reviews the conflict issue, according to court records.

Carl Oreskovich, who was appointed by the court to represent Thompson in the criminal case, could not be reached for comment. But he has regularly denied that any conflicts exist with how he was hired by the city to defend Thompson and several other officers in the $2.9 million civil case and represent only Thompson in the criminal case.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin said he could not comment on the case. However, he has filed extensive documents calling for Van Sickle to either disqualify Oreskovich or conduct a hearing to understand how Oreskovich can effectively defend Thompson when he was hired to defend other city employees in the civil case who may testify against the embattled officer in the criminal trial.

“The United States has been informed that one or more (Spokane Police) employee witnesses, with whom the defendant’s counsel has met-interviewed-conferred and/or possibly advised … may also be asserting 5th Amendment privileges and may demand the granting of testimonial immunity before they are willing to testify,” Durkin wrote earlier this month.

“As such, this Court needs to engage in a full inquiry … so as to clarify and resolve apparent and potential conflicts that are likely to rise at trial.”

The controversy first surfaced last year when the Spokane City Council twice voted to hire Oreskovich and pay him up to $200,000 to “represent the City of Spokane and its employees” in the civil case filed by Zehm’s family. A couple months later, a federal magistrate appointed Oreskovich to handle Thompson’s criminal defense.

But City Attorney Howard Delaney said at the time of the second vote that he had, without informing city leaders, reassigned Oreskovich to represent only Thompson. The city attorney’s office continues to represent the other officers.

But Durkin said it appears Oreskovich met with several officers and advised them during the time when a grand jury was hearing evidence against Thompson.

“It appears that there is … evidence that criminal defense counsel and other members of his firm have provided legal services to not only (Thompson), but also the City of Spokane and other (police officers) who may be called as prosecution witnesses,” Durkin wrote. “This evidence and history creates significant concerns about the presence of actual and apparent conflicts of interests that most certainly need to be addressed.”

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