October 21, 2011 in City

Shawn Vestal: Bottle report a lot of fizz but little pop

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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The Otto Zehm case produced its first moment of comedy this week, though it’s not funny-ha-ha.

It’s funny-stupid.

A police officer, angered by mockery of the whole pop-bottle-as-weapon thing, set out to show that pop bottles are indeed deadly. He made a video to prove his point, and it was the top story on a local news broadcast this week.

In the video, Officer Frank Erhart uses a two-liter bottle of pop – similar to the one Otto Zehm was holding so threateningly five years ago near the end of his life – to smash a variety of items from the produce department. The brutality of the pop bottle was narrated by KXLY reporter Jeff Humphreys in an “exclusive report.”

“Erhart had no trouble clobbering a watermelon,” Humphreys says, “and then decided to up the ante by targeting a pair of coconuts. They were also flattened by the pop bottle, and even various pieces of lumber were no match for the container.”

In the video, Erhart, a Spokane police officer and former defensive tactics trainer, vigorously heaves the bottle through all the produce and lumber he can – even breaking a baton much like the one Karl Thompson used on Otto Zehm in that Zip Trip.

Erhart hits every target but one: the point. He misses that by 10 million miles. Because all Otto did was hold a pop bottle. It’s so much harder to smash a watermelon that way.

Erhart apparently thinks the video will be beneficial for Thompson – charged with excessive force and lying to investigators – and instructive for the public. And it is enlightening, though not in the way he intended. He wants us to see how reasonable it would be – how perfectly natural – for an officer to construe a pop bottle as a weapon. Instead, what he revealed is the prism of militaristic defensiveness through which some officers view citizens: Everyone is a threat. Everything is a weapon.

A sack of potatoes. A laptop computer. A talking Elmo doll.

Anything at all.

Humphreys concludes his report by saying that Erhart has offered his produce-massacre exhibition to Thompson’s defense attorneys, who seem to have wisely ignored it. “Now he’s hoping that video will help the public understand that when officers are going someplace where a crime may have occurred, keeping your hands empty and in plain sight – probably the best thing for all involved.”

Ah. So understanding is what’s needed. Just to be sure I understand: If you’re holding something that a physically fit police officer might hypothetically use to smash a watermelon – anything at all, from a pumpkin to a toddler – you must drop it immediately if you’re in an area where a crime may have occurred – preferably before you see the cop rushing toward you with his baton withdrawn – or police officers will literally not be able to stop themselves from beating you. They will have no choice.

Message received, officer.

Meanwhile, the trial marches on. This week’s testimony included yet another series of sobering, highly technical discussions about what happened in that convenience store five years ago.

Experts analyzed the store’s surveillance videotapes frame by frame. Is Otto making a fist in this one? Where is Thompson holding his baton in that one? Is that motion of Zehm’s foot a kick toward Thompson – or a physiological response to a Taser?

On Wednesday, jurors were presented with the body. Not literally, of course, but over and over again in photographs and through the testimony of Dr. Sally Aiken, the medical examiner. Otto’s bruises were cataloged. Measured. Analyzed. Described in color and size. His body – in photographs from the hospital and the autopsy – was pored over in exhaustive detail.

His contusions. His scars. The incision for organ donation. His pale nude body, from this angle and that.

The attorneys argued over relevance. The judge warned prosecutors not to get too redundant with all those photos of the dead Otto. The medical examiner discussed the different types of injuries made by dry-stun application of Tasers versus Taser probes. She gave Otto’s weight and height, minus donated organs. She described areas of bruising where several separate contusions converged into one large one.

She talked about the way a police baton leaves parallel “train track” marks on a body. Like the ones all over Otto.

This gruesome inventory was a reminder that, as much as we’d like to think otherwise, there is no justice for Otto. None to be had anywhere on Earth. No amount of testimony, no conviction or exoneration, no verdict, no sentence, no parsing of the injuries that covered his body – nothing will bring any justice to Otto Zehm.

The questions of justice are for those of us who are left. Those who survived the night of March 18, 2006, to debate the bottle and the body.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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