A Community’s closure
More than five years after his death, Zehm storylines to play out in court
Otto Zehm’s death in 2006 polarized the community and sparked calls for reform. The complex legal battle over his death that followed has brought criticism of Spokane city leaders’ handling of the case and even morale problems within police ranks. Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr.’s criminal trial is set to begin Wednesday.
“The trust will come back when this case finally gets tried,” said veteran legal observer Tim Trageser, a local defense attorney. “We as citizens have to accept what those 12 jurors decide.”
March 18, 2006
Two young women called 911 and made an erroneous report that Otto Zehm had stolen money from an ATM. Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. responded. He found Zehm, a mentally ill janitor, inside the Zip Trip on North Division Street. The store’s surveillance video showed Thompson approaching Zehm, who turned to watch the officer. Thompson began striking Zehm with his baton in what became a frenzied struggle that sometimes went out of the camera’s view. Thompson shocked Zehm with a Taser, which Thompson said had little effect. Six other officers arrived to assist Thompson; they hog-tied Zehm and placed him on his stomach, which police officials later confirmed was a violation of policy. One strapped a plastic mask over Zehm’s face to prevent him from spitting, then two officers put their weight on Zehm for a period of minutes before they noticed he wasn’t breathing, according to court records. Zehm never regained consciousness and died two days later.
Assistant Spokane police Chief Jim Nicks, the acting chief at the time, said Zehm “lunged” and “attacked” Thompson, prompting the use of force. An investigation by detectives Mark Burbridge and now-retired Terry Ferguson found no criminal violations, and Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker made no charging decision in the case. Instead, Tucker said he would wait for the results of an FBI investigation. That investigation revealed the detectives omitted statements from witnesses; discredited another witness as having anti-law enforcement bias; and found that Ferguson failed to turn over a report from an ambulance technician indicating that Thompson hit Zehm in the head with his baton, which would constitute unjustified lethal force. Nicks later told a grand jury that Zehm had been “retreating the entire time” from Thompson, and that Thompson violated department policy and was not justified in using that level of force, according to court records.
The legal cases
The FBI investigation led to Thompson’s indictment in 2009 on charges that he used unreasonable force and lied to investigators. After delays and dozens of legal decisions, Thompson’s criminal trial in U.S. District Court begins this week. Attorneys predict as many as 120 witnesses could testify in the four- to six-week trial, which has been moved to Yakima after defense lawyers expressed concern about finding impartial jurors in Spokane following intense media coverage and strong community reaction to various developments in the case.
Also in 2009, attorneys representing Zehm’s mother and estate filed a federal civil rights suit against the city of Spokane and police officers. Attorneys said they had tried to negotiate a settlement that would include monetary damages, an apology and a plan for changes in the way police deal with mentally ill people. Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi and defense attorney Carl Oreskovich authored a 56-page response 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.
‘An open wound’
“There has been an open wound for 5 1/2 years and it has created such a crisis,” Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said last week. “The longer this goes, the wound gets worse and the community gets sicker. Regardless of the outcome there will be hurt and pain. But even in the pain of recovery, eventually you have to get where you have a scar and not just the pain.”
Thompson, a decorated police officer and Vietnam veteran who earned the Bronze Star for actions to save a fellow soldier, also deserves his day in court, the chief said. The community deserves to be able to watch the process.
“We need to have this come to a conclusion and what needs to be said, to be said,” Kirkpatrick said. “I’ve never lived in a city that wants to really love their police department more. And healing takes time. I’m talking for everybody. I care about my department and I care about the Zehm family and the community,” she said, adding, “We’ve got to get closure.”
‘He cannot speak for himself’
Zehm lived on the fringes, struggled with paranoid schizophrenia and in many ways represented the individual that society should protect, said Trageser, a Spokane defense attorney who has no connection to the vast legal web tangled around Zehm’s death.
“Otto probably would have been an easy person to sweep away and forget,” Trageser said this week. “It took the support of the community to finally protect him. Unfortunately, it had to be his death to make him a champion for accountability. It’s really unfortunate.”
A former Spokane County prosecutor, James Sweetser, said, “There have been so many different perspectives presented that people don’t know what to believe. But what I can say is we are very lucky that we have a videotape. If we just relied on witness statements and it was believed, there would be no justice for Otto. He cannot speak for himself.”