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Verner vows to seek resolution in Zehm civil suit

Mayor Mary Verner
Mayor Mary Verner

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner announced today that she is seeking “all courses of action” to resolve the civil case surrounding the city’s handling of the fatal 2006 confrontation between Spokane police and mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm.

Verner said media attention over the past week has brought “raw emotions and ongoing frustration from our community, made worse by the complexity of legal processes surrounding the matter,” according to a news release. Much of the media coverage has focused on growing contradictions emerging in court documents between the city’s insistence that its officers did nothing wrong and statements under oath by an assistant police chief acknowledging several policy violations and poor investigation.

“I cannot guarantee a date of finality in this case, but I can ensure that the City does everything possible to try to bring much-needed closure to the community, to the Police Department, and most importantly to Mrs. Zehm,” Verner said in the release.

The announcement comes a day after the City Council agreed to consider next week whether to pay a Seattle attorney up to $75,000 to represent Assistant Chief Jim Nicks, who according to court documents is prepared to testify for the prosecution in the upcoming federal criminal trial of Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr.

City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said that if the City Council approves the plan Monday, Seattle-based attorney Theodore Angelis, of the international law firm K & L Gates, would be hired at taxpayer expense to represent Nicks in the civil portion of the legal fight surrounding Zehm’s death.

In that civil case, attorneys representing Zehm’s mother and estate have filed a $2.9 million claim against the city, Thompson, Nicks and several officers who responded to the convenience store that night. That case has been put on hold until the criminal trial – currently set to begin on Oct. 11 – concludes.

“The city was representing (Nicks) and has been in the civil case,” Feist said. “With the affidavit filed last week, we felt it was best to provide (Nicks) with separate counsel.”

Feist acknowledged that the decision was related to the potential that Nicks’ testimony could create a conflict of interest with the legal representation of other officers, including Thompson.

Mayor Mary Verner said last week that she had not read declarations by Nicks, which were filed in court records on Aug. 5. Then last Tuesday, Verner said the city would be reviewing its legal strategy after learning that Nicks is prepared to testify that Thompson violated department policy and use-of-force standards when he immediately began beating Zehm with a baton on March 18, 2006.

Today, Verner announced essentially that the city will be seeking all options for ending the civil case, including asking U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko to lift a stay that prevents both sides from sharing evidence until Thompson’s criminal trial concludes.

Verner said she can’t “unilaterally” reach a resolution in the civil case and that the outcome of the criminal trial is “completely out of her control.

“Admittedly, these steps are part of a complex process, but we have to ensure that we are doing everything possible to secure the confidence of our citizens,” Verner said in the release. “I have a responsibility to maintain trust in our Police Department and to work in good faith to reach a fair resolution in the civil case.”

Feist said that Verner would not discuss the matter beyond what she wrote in the release.

Breean Beggs, who along with Jeffry Finer represents the estate and mother of Zehm, said he was not aware of Verner’s new position until a reporter read him the mayor’s statement.

The last time before today that city offered any negotiations to settle the case was just prior to the filing of the civil suit in March 2009, Beggs said.

But he added that he and Finer a couple weeks ago wrote city leaders, urging them to negotiate a settlement, which was not barred by Suko’s order. They received no response.

“Basically, this statement in a sense is an answer to that letter,” Beggs said. “We said it’s been far too long. We want to bring closure. Why don’t we sit down and negotiate it? We don’t have to wait for the criminal trial. In fact, settling the civil case would make the criminal case far less divisive.”

Feist said Verner formalized her decision today but has been working toward it since last week.

The city spokeswoman declined to comment on why the city didn’t re-evaluate its strategy in March 2010, when court documents were first filed indicating that Nicks’ testimony could be damaging to the city’s case.

“That would get into strategy,” Feist said. “It’s not my place to get into that level of detail.”

Staff reporter Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.