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Thompson trial opens with legal wrangling

Fri., Oct. 14, 2011


Attorneys go on attack in first day of testimony

YAKIMA – After years of clashing on paper, attorneys in the excessive force trial of Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. took their frustrations out on each other Thursday with multiple objections, heated exchanges and even an allegation of prosecutorial misconduct.

Despite the stops, attorneys managed to make their opening statements and even call a few witnesses in the first full day of trial, detailing the actions and statements of Thompson after his March 18, 2006, confrontation with 36-year-old Otto Zehm.

“It’s a case about a police officer who walked into a convenience store who unleashed blows on a citizen who posed no threat,” Justice Department attorney Victor Boutros told jurors. “He used his badge as a license to beat the victim with a police baton over and over and over. (Thompson) continued to disgrace his badge to cover with a web of lies what he had done.”

Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich told jurors his 64-year-old client was a decorated officer and former police chief candidate who was simply trying to protect the public with his split-second decision.

“This will be a long trial. I think in the end, the evidence will show this police officer was not acting in a bad purpose, but with the purpose he was charged with: to investigate and protect citizens,” Oreskovich said. “This honorable man is innocent of these crimes.”

Prosecutors showed jurors video footage – sometimes frame by frame – from the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division St. where Zehm was beaten and hog-tied before he stopped breathing. He died two days later without regaining consciousness.

Throughout the testimony, Oreskovich made dozens of objections, complaining that prosecutors had not properly organized the evidence so the defense could quickly review what was being presented.

U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle was called on to referee. At one point, Oreskovich stood up during the testimony of FBI agent Lisa Jangaard, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Aine Ahmed growled: “Is there an objection here or can I ask questions?”

Despite the posturing, attorneys for the first time revealed key information. Oreskovich in his opening statement said that former Spokane police Detective Terry Ferguson asked Thompson if he wanted to review the video from the Zip Trip before he gave his taped statement – which later became the basis of the charge of lying to investigators.

“Unfortunately, he got some things out of order” in his story, Oreskovich said of Thompson, who will testify in his own defense. “Now he gets called a liar.”

And Boutros said that Officer Sandi McIntyre, who is under federal investigation for potential obstruction of justice charges, went to the Zip Trip on the night of the incident. She watched the video and spoke briefly with Thompson; Boutros characterized theirs as like a father-daughter relationship.

Boutros said McIntyre could see on the video that Zehm did not lunge as Thompson initially reported, a contention that was repeated up the chain of command and reported to the community by acting police Chief Jim Nicks. After McIntyre told Thompson what the video showed, “he had to come up with a new justification,” Boutros said.

“You will learn that at no point during this vicious beating did Mr. Zehm attack the defendant or anyone else,” Boutros said. “It will be clear to you that this sudden attack was unnecessary.”

But Oreskovich countered that officers face risk on a daily basis and are forced to make quick decisions based on incomplete information.

“The cruel irony of this case is that the very same quick decision making … is the same quick decision making when in 2002 he pulled a jumper back from a bridge and earned the department’s lifesaving award,” Oreskovich said. “This is a highly respected, honored police officer who was doing his duty on March 18, 2006.”

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