Zehm suffocated due to prolonged pressure on body, doctor contends
A medical expert hired by the Spokane police officer facing criminal charges over the fatal Otto Zehm confrontation is blaming other officers at the scene for causing the unarmed janitor’s death.
Court documents filed Friday in U.S. District Court indicate Dr. Daniel Davis is prepared to testify in Officer Karl Thompson’s excessive force trial that the asphyxiation that killed Zehm was caused by officers pressing down on him while he was hogtied on the floor of a Zip Trip convenience store.
In the documents, Davis provides a second-by-second review of the store video that captured the confrontation in making his medical finding, which includes no mention of the “excited delirium” diagnosis offered by Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken during her autopsy of Zehm following the March 18, 2006, confrontation.
Davis reviewed Aiken’s findings and said he’s prepared to testify on Thompson’s behalf that Zehm’s “proximate cause of death was compression asphyxia” caused by officers pressing down on his lower back and head and neck area for nearly three minutes before Zehm stopped breathing.
Davis’ analysis shows that Officer Erin Raleigh applied pressure on Zehm’s abdomen for 1 minute, 34 seconds. Another officer, Jason Uberuaga, “remains on Zehm’s chest/neck area for a total of 2 minutes, 47 seconds,” Davis wrote in his report. “After pressure was removed, it was noticed almost immediately that (Zehm) was unresponsive.”
That testimony would directly contradict previous statements by city officials, including then-Deputy Chief Al Odenthal who said, “No,” on July 13, 2006, when asked during a news conference whether officers were applying pressure on Zehm as he was hogtied on his stomach.
Attorney Breean Beggs, who along with Jeffry Finer is representing the estate and mother of Zehm, said the newest filing clearly supports something that city officials privately and publicly denied.
“It’s kind of the same general trend,” Beggs said. “Even though it’s five years later, all the evidence seems to be confirming what the family was concerned about from the beginning … that the death was caused by officer misconduct in the form of excessive compression and had nothing to do with excited delirium.”
That term has been used by some police agencies to describe otherwise unexplainable behavior, such as an elevated body temperature and bizarre actions, including resisting arrest. While Aiken included the reference in her autopsy, she noted research into the condition is “conflicting and somewhat controversial.”
City Administrator Ted Danek said he had not read the new filing by attorney Courtney Garcea and was not prepared to comment. He referred questions to city spokeswoman Marlene Feist, who also said she hadn’t read the document filed in preparation for the Oct. 11 federal criminal trial of Thompson.
“We will see a lot of filings as this trial prepares to commence,” Feist said. “I think this is one more piece of information we will have to review as a city to see how it fits in with the larger picture.”
Thompson faces the felony charges of using unreasonable force and lying to investigators following the deadly confrontation. Back in 2006, he had responded to a call by two young women who erroneously thought Zehm had stolen money from a nearby ATM.
Thompson followed Zehm into a nearby Zip Trip convenience store, confronted him in an aisle and immediately began beating him with a baton and shocked him with a Taser. Several other officers arrived to help control Zehm, who eventually lost consciousness and died two days later.
Following his death, Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi wrote about the cause of death after attorneys representing the Zehm family asked for a retraction by then-Acting Chief Jim Nicks about statements he made on May 30, 2006. On that day, Nicks announced Aiken’s cause of death and said officers had kept Zehm on his side for a “majority” of the time he was hogtied to ensure he could breathe.
The video, which was previously reviewed by Nicks and released a month later, clearly showed that officers kept Zehm on his stomach most of the several minutes he remained hogtied before he stopped breathing.
Nicks – who is now prepared to testify that Thompson violated policy and procedures during the confrontation – later said: “I made it clear that during the (May 30) press conference my impression was that he was on his side for a great portion of that time. So my impression obviously wasn’t quite accurate. But there was no intent to mislead or misdirect in any shape or form.”
Treppiedi wrote in his June 21, 2006, letter that the officers “acted pursuant to their training” to monitor Zehm once he was hogtied “regardless of whether he was on his back, stomach or side. They not only monitored him – they had paramedics on scene and had them take immediate steps to provide medical aid to him once he stopped breathing.”
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