March 27, 2011 in City

Clark: Thompson trial leaving out important truths about Zehm

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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No Huckleberries

Huckleberries, by Dave Oliveria, will return.

Let’s make believe that you’re on the jury in the federal criminal trial against Karl F. Thompson Jr.

Presuming it ever happens, of course.

Thompson is the Spokane police officer charged with excessive force and lying to investigators regarding his violent March 18, 2006, encounter in a convenience store with the late Otto Zehm.

As you sit in judgment, don’t you think it would be important to know that Zehm, a mentally ill janitor, had not committed any crime prior to being cop-clubbed and zapped with a Taser?

Being innocent, after all, could explain Zehm’s shocked, befuddled reactions when Thompson suddenly got in his face.

But even more important is that Zehm’s innocence is 100 percent true.

And isn’t that what our great system of justice is supposedly all about?

You know: The Truth, the Whole Truth, and nothing but The Truth!

Yeah, right. Save that fantasy for moldy old Perry Mason reruns.

Trials are a lot about gamesmanship. They’re about behind-the-scenes negotiating and judicial discretion that sometimes leads to the exclusion of certain evidence.

Here’s the sad truth.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld federal Judge Fred Van Sickle’s troubling decision to keep the jury in the dark about Zehm’s noncriminality.

Our intrepid reporter Tom Clouse wrote the story about this a few days ago. But what this development will ultimately mean is anyone’s call.

I hate to be pessimistic. But I wouldn’t be totally surprised if this trial, now scheduled for Oct. 11, never takes place.

OK. That’s a wild and crazy guess on my part.

But don’t discount how huge this innocence issue is to the feds prosecuting Thompson.

So much so that they had the trial halted on the very first day last year in order to appeal Van Sickle’s ruling to the 9th Circuit.

You’d probably have to waterboard a federal prosecutor to get him to tell you what he’s up to during a trial.

But here’s what Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin wrote on the subject in a court document:

“The excluded innocence evidence is critical to the United States’ proof on both charges since it tends to show the defendant lied about his justification for his initial use of force.”

Note that pesky word, “critical.”

Is Durkin saying the Van Sickle ruling is a deal breaker?

Hey, I don’t own a crystal ball.

But I suspect that Team Thompson is probably celebrating like New Year’s Eve.

Without regurgitating all the details in our story, it did contain a sliver of hope. As Clouse wrote, the 9th Circuit “left a legal door open for federal prosecutors once they start presenting evidence.”

Legal doorways aside, however, nothing that happens in any courtroom will alter the facts of this tragedy.

Zehm went into that Zip Trip five years ago to buy a Snickers bar.

Little did he know that two young women had wrongly reported him as a thief who stole money from a nearby ATM.

Thompson arrived first. More officers and paramedics would follow.

When it was all over, Zehm had been bashed repeatedly with a baton, shocked and left hogtied for some 17 minutes. Fearing Zehm would spit, a plastic mask was stuck over his face.

The mask wasn’t hooked to an oxygen supply.

Zehm, a large and now-agitated man, was forced to suck his air through a tiny hole in the plastic.

He died two days later, never regaining consciousness.

This innocent man was treated worse than a wild animal.

And that, boys and girls, is The Truth.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.


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