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Defense launches its case

Zehm’s head wounds weren’t from baton, doctor testifies

YAKIMA – After nearly two weeks of critical prosecution testimony, defense attorneys for Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. opened their case Monday with a medical doctor who told jurors Otto Zehm’s head injuries “couldn’t have” come from a police baton.

The conclusion of Dr. James Nania, a longtime emergency room physician at Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane, contradicts testimony of Spokane County Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken and another medical expert called by federal prosecutors last week, both of whom said bleeding under Zehm’s scalp was consistent with baton strikes.

“They couldn’t have been,” Nania said. “You can’t do that kind of injury … without smashing the scalp.”

Photos of Zehm’s scalp at autopsy showed no corresponding marks.

“I’ve seen a lot of people hit in the head with objects like that … and you would expect to see significant apparent injury,” Nania said. “I could find no medical evidence that (Zehm) was struck in the head by a baton.”

It will be up to jurors to sort out contradictory testimony in the case against Thompson, charged with using excessive force and lying to investigators in the fatal March 18, 2006, confrontation with Zehm, an unarmed janitor mistakenly identified as a suspect in a possible theft. Zehm was beaten with police batons, shocked with Tasers and hogtied on the floor of a Zip Trip convenience store in north Spokane and never regained consciousness.

Last week, prosecution medical experts told jurors that a wound over Zehm’s right eye, which had a similar tram-track pattern to several baton strikes to Zehm’s torso and legs, was caused by a police baton. Baton strikes to the head would be considered improper lethal force.

But Nania said that area of the eyebrow is subject to a goose egg, or swelling under the skin, much like boxers suffer during fights. 

“One’s a little bruise and one’s a little scrape,” said Nania, who also said he’s not being paid for his testimony. “They could have happened a hundred different ways during this altercation.”

Other highlights of Monday’s testimony include a former Zip Trip employee who testified for the prosecution.

Angela Wiggins was called into work following the 2006 confrontation and was directed to show Spokane police Officer Sandy McIntyre video footage from the store’s security cameras.

Wiggins said McIntyre – who testified as a hostile witness on Friday and is facing her own investigation of obstruction of justice related to this case – changed her demeanor as she watched the initial clash between Thompson and Zehm. “She made the comment, ‘He didn’t lunge,’ ” Wiggins testified Monday, contradicting McIntyre’s testimony from last week. “I remember that clearly because I didn’t understand what she was talking about.”

Wiggins was in Yakima for Monday’s testimony after being arrested in California on a material witness warrant. She’d missed two flights arranged by federal authorities last week.

Also Monday, another defense expert, William Lewinski, testified that his studies indicate that officers often don’t remember things in critical incidents in sequence. He said they often suffer fractured memories of the event.

Lewinski, however, never mentioned Thompson’s actions or statements.

Today, the defense is expected to call several of the Spokane police officers who responded to the convenience store, including several who were involved in the struggle to subdue Zehm.