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Another defense expert disputes Zehm head strikes

YAKIMA — A second defense expert has testified that head injuries suffered by Otto Zehm didn’t come from a police baton.

The Tuesday morning testimony by Dr. Dan Davis, a forensic pathologist, marked yet another day of wildly contradictory conclusions by court-recognized experts that jurors in the excessive force trial of Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. must sort out.

Davis showed photos of other baton strikes, including one photo of a woman who suffered a split scalp after being hit by a long object like a baton.

“Through a reasonable degree of medical certainty, there is no evidence that Mr. Zehm was struck in the head by a baton,” Davis said. Bleeding under the scalp probably represents “blunt impact injuries on the head without any evidence of an instrument depression. These are characteristic of someone who bangs their head on the floor or something firm.”

Davis also gave an alternative theory for how Zehm suffered those injuries during his struggle with Thompson on March 18, 2006.

“These could also be traction injuries, such as grabbing a handful of hair and pulling very hard. That would not result in any bruising of the scalp.”

Prosecutors previously called Spokane Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken and Dr. Harry Smith — who found almost the exact head wounds as Zehm when he testified in the case of Rodney King — both testified they believed Zehm’s head wounds came from baton strikes, which were described by several witnesses.

“I agree with her observations,” Davis said of Aiken’s work, “but I do disagree with her determination of the mechanism that caused that injury.”

Zehm, who was mistakenly identified as a suspect in a possible theft, died two days after the violent police confrontation without ever regaining consciousness. Several people in the store at the time said Thompson repeatedly bashed the retreating Zehm in the head with a baton. Thompson disputes hitting him in the head but acknowledges a violent struggle to detain Zehm.

Also testifying this morning was Pat Conley, an owner of the White Elephant store on North Division.

That store sits about 100 feet away from the Zip Trip where Thompson confronted Zehm. Conley said he and his brother were just locking up the store on March 18, 2006, when he noticed a police car parked at an odd angle at the convenience store.

Conley said he walked over to investigate and saw Thompson struggling with Zehm.

“The officer had ahold of the person’s back or hair and was shuffling and swinging him back and forth,” Conley said. Zehm “was swinging his arms over his back. His feet were floundering like he was trying to get up.”

Lamberson asked if Zehm was using closed fists. Conley said yes.

Other officers arrived but Zehm continued to struggle, Conley said.

“I was hearing officers say ‘calm down.’ (Zehm) was spitting and growling,” Conley said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Aine Ahmed asked if Conley said that Zehm was spitting and pointed out that no officers ever reported Zehm spitting. “I don’t know why,” Conley responded.

Ahmed then asked Conley about how he watched a TV interview with one of the witnesses who said Thompson struck Zehm in the head with a baton.

“You didn’t agree with her assessment?” Ahmed said. Conley replied: “I didn’t agree.”

“You told the police that day that you believe the young woman and man looked a little shady. You referred to them as possible drug dealers,” Ahmed said.

Conley responded: “I described them as gang-banger types.”

Afternoon testimony is expected to feature Officer Steve Braun Jr. who was the first officer to respond but second officer to arrive at the Zip Trip where Zehm was shopping for soda and snacks.

He could be the first of many Spokane police witnesses today.