YAKIMA - A jury today convicted Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. of needlessly beating Otto Zehm and then lying about it to cover up his actions.
The verdict comes five years and seven months since Zehm’s life ended and growing questions of police accountability began.
Prosecutors are expected to seek a prison term of six to eight years, arguing that Thompson was in a position of trust and that Zehm, who was schizophrenic, was particularly vulnerable.
“We are greatly relieved, the jury performed its duty,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin, who oversaw preparations for the federal case. “It’s not something we take any joy in. But it’s a very important case and we still have a lot of work to do.”
Despite the criminal conviction, U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle allowed Thompson, 64, to remain free despite a request by federal prosecutors to immediately detain him, which is mandatory for violent crimes.
Late today, Durkin filed a motion seeking to hold an 11 a.m. hearing in Yakima that would be video-linked to Spokane. The motion seeks to have Thompson detained until his sentencing, which Van Sickle did not immediately set.
In court, defense attorney Carl Oreskovich argued against Thompson’s arrest, saying the case “involved the use of force, but I do not believe it is an act of violence” that would trigger mandatory detention. In 2009, Thompson posted a $50,000 signature bond following his indictment. Today, he declined several requests for comment following the verdict.
Oreskovich said appeal options will be considered after a sentencing hearing, which has yet to be scheduled.
“I am surprised and stunned by the outcome of this case,” Oreskovich said. “We believe Officer Thompson is an innocent man. We are going to keep fighting for him. This is a devastating day for him and us.”
Jurors declined comment as they left the federal courthouse. One said they had decided as a group to decline post-verdict interviews.
In Spokane, Mayor Mary Verner said today she’s hoping the verdict will enable the community to begin healing after years of divisive debate over the fatal Zehm encounter.
“This tragedy has torn us apart,” Verner said. “As we reach closure I hope that we’ll think first and foremost of the people whose lives were changed on that day in 2006 and that we will rally together as a community.”
Paperwork terminating Thompson’s employment with the Spokane police force is being prepared, said Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. Although internal investigations into the conduct of other officers on the force are possible, the chief said she won’t initiate any until federal authorities advise that their investigations into the department are complete.
Kirkpatrick said she would attend all police rollcalls over the next 24 hours.
“We’re going to heal,” Kikrpatrick said. “Much of my role is like a parent. I am here to serve them, care for them and direct them. We’re going to reset our button. We’re going to move forward, and we’ll let the healing process take its natural course.”
A federal grand jury reportedly is considering criminal charges against at least one other Spokane police officer in connection with the Zehm case, and in court this week U.S. prosecutors openly described what they consider an attempted coverup involving various officers.
Back in 2006, police rebuffed any questions about the fatal confrontation, insisting for months that Zehm was the aggressor and that Thompson was forced to defend himself and others from an out-of-control robbery suspect. The city and Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker also fought attempts by news organizations to obtain copies of the convenience store security video, relenting only after The Spokesman-Review advised it was preparing to sue under government accountability laws.
Spokane Police Acting Chief Jim Nicks insisted Thompson had followed proper police training and procedure, statements he later reversed when questioned by federal investigators.
Community reaction to the case intensified in July 2006 when police officials finally showed the surveillance video which showed Thompson advancing on a retreating Zehm.
The video did not show any lunge or any of the aggressive behavior described by Thompson in his tape-recorded interview on March 22, 2006 with Detective Terry Ferguson.
The FBI started its own probe about the same time Ferguson wrote a report saying that she found no evidence of excessive force.
As a result, details began leaking out of how Ferguson and fellow detective Mark Burbridge either omitted or inaccurately documented witness statements that Thompson had hit Zehm in the head, which would constitute unjustified lethal force.
Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker used the FBI investigation as justification for withholding a charging decision in state court. Tucker said at the time that he wanted to see the evidence gathered by federal agents.
As the federal criminal investigation continued - which ultimately led to Thompson’s indictment for using unreasonable force and lying to investigators - attorneys for Zehm’s estate and his mother filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.
That case was put on hold by U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko until the conclusion of the criminal case after concerns of conflict of interest were raised by federal prosecutors who claimed in court documents that Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi and others were using information in the civil case to assist Oreskovich in the criminal case.
Breean Beggs and Jeffry Finer, who represent Zehm’s mother and estate, previously said that they had tried to negotiate a settlement that would include monetary damages, an apology and a plan for changes for the way police interact with mentally ill people.
But Treppiedi and Oreskovich authored a 56-page response in 2009 that said Zehm was at fault for his own death.
“Any injury or damage suffered by Mr. Zehm was caused solely by reason of his conduct and willful resistance,” they wrote.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter