Officer denied Zehm lunged, judge told
YAKIMA – On the eve of his anticipated testimony, Assistant Spokane police Chief Jim Nicks disclosed to prosecutors that he believes Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. tried to “manipulate” his testimony.
Nicks is expected to be the first witness called today in the ongoing criminal trial of Thompson, who is charged with using unreasonable force and lying to investigators after his confrontation in 2006 with Otto Zehm.
Nicks had been scheduled to take the stand Tuesday. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Aine Ahmed said that on Monday night, Nicks for the first time revealed that more than a year ago Thompson approached Nicks and said, “You know, there was no lunge” by Zehm at the Zip Trip the night of the confrontation.
“Chief Nicks didn’t respond but thought Officer Thompson was trying to manipulate him,” Ahmed said Tuesday.
Defense attorney Steven Lamberson asked U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle to bar any reference to Thompson’s comments.
“What I’m objecting to is the conclusion he took from this,” Lamberson said of Nicks. “Officer Thompson is going to deny it. It’s clearly prejudicial.”
Van Sickle said he will allow Nicks to tell the jury about the statement but not about Nicks’ conclusion that Thompson was trying to manipulate him.
That revelation came on a day when the jury got a detailed, frame-by-frame analysis of the video and a comparison to Thompson’s statement – something that federal prosecutors said was never done by police detectives.
Richard Gill, an expert in the field of human factors, which combines engineering and psychology, showed 13 baton strikes and one Taser shot Thompson delivered to Zehm, a 36-year-old janitor who had schizophrenia.
Gill said the video clearly shows Zehm walking at slower than casual speed as he walked into the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division St. Zehm glanced for a second or two at Thompson’s approaching car, but otherwise had his back to Thompson until the confrontation began.
Gill described how fast Thompson got out of his car and rushed into the store.
“What we saw was that Thompson’s decision to reach for the baton was made before he ever stepped across the threshold of that door,” Gill said.
Once he entered the store, Thompson delivered his first baton strike in just over two seconds. However, Thompson told investigators that he first stopped in front of Zehm and twice commanded him to drop the soda bottle before using his baton.
“In my opinion, it’s unlikely that the verbal exchange … could have occurred in this brief period of time,” Gill said.
Throughout the trial, Thompson has remained stoic. But Thompson rested his cheek in his palm and leaned on his left elbow as Gill described the action by each quarter second.
Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich challenged some of Gill’s conclusions, saying the video shows Zehm kicking and clenching fists. Oreskovich also brought up a second police officer, Steve Braun Jr., who rushed into the store after Thompson and used the touch probes on his Taser to zap Zehm two additional times with 50,000 volts of electricity.
“Officer Braun’s actions that we know occurred are not shown on the video. So you’d agree with me, would you not, that this video does not capture all of the conduct between Officer Thompson and Otto Zehm,” Oreskovich said.
Gill agreed, but said the video shows no evidence that Zehm ever kicked at Thompson, stood back up in a boxing stance or several other things that Thompson described.
Ahmed then called Dustin Balam, who was 24 at the time.
He was one of a few witnesses who were able to see the confrontation that cameras were unable to capture.
Balam said Thompson struck Zehm before issuing any commands and that Zehm did not hold the bottle in a threatening manner.
Balam said he didn’t learn until he was interviewed by the FBI that Spokane Police detectives had indicated that Balam wasn’t paying attention all the time during the confrontation.
“I heard (Thompson) say ‘drop the pop bottle’ while he was on top of him,” Balam said.
Zehm held the bottle “like a defensive position, like he was trying to block” baton strikes.
The last witness was retired Spokane Police Cpl. Ty Johnson, who said he was a personal friend of Thompson’s.
Johnson told a federal grand jury that Thompson told him at the March 18, 2006, incident that Zehm lunged at him. But under questioning by Victor Boutros, a Department of Justice trial attorney, Johnson said he didn’t remember who told him what happened.
“That word keeps coming out,” Johnson said, referring to “lunged.” He continued, “I never used it and it was never used with me. I don’t know where it came from.”