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Alternate juror: case against Thompson ‘horrible’

Thu., Aug. 9, 2012, 12:39 p.m.

New documents released today show that the only person who raised issues about juror misconduct in the trial that convicted former Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. was an alternate juror who was not privy to the final deliberations.

U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle called for the secret hearings in May after attorneys learned that the alternate juror told a court security officer that jurors improperly discussed the case prior to deliberations that resulted in the Nov. 2 conviction.

“I thought the government put up a terrible case. Horrible,” said the alternate juror, whose name was redacted. “I thought they got it wrong.”

Thompson has yet to be sentenced almost a year after he was convicted of using excessive force and lying to investigators following the March 18, 2006, confrontation with Otto Zehm in a Spokane convenience store.

The case took more than five years to get to trial, which Van Sickle moved to Yakima based on intense media coverage.

Following the conviction, Oreskovich has filed several motions seeking a new trial, including allegations that jurors improperly watched television during the trial.

At the May hearing, the alternate juror said another juror admitted that he watched television coverage of the trial and that several jurors, which he named, talked about several aspects of the case.

But the alternate juror could not remember any specific comments made other jury members indicating they had decided the case prior to deliberations, from which he was excluded.

“Human beings get together, and they start talking, and pretty soon everybody’s got an opinion,” according the court transcript, “and pretty soon you’re all talking about it, and you’re not supposed to.”

Van Sickle sealed the proceedings upon the request of defense attorney Carl Oreskovich and indicated that he had never held such hearings in his career as a judge. He agreed last month to unseal the records at the request of attorneys representing The Spokesman-Review.

Following the private interview of the alternate juror, Van Sickle then called for a second hearing where three of the jurors mentioned by the alternate – including forewoman Diane Riley – were questioned.

The jurors were taken into the judge’s chambers where he allowed one federal prosecutor, Oreskovich and Thompson to remain. The jurors were then asked about their jury service in Thompson’s presence.

At one point during the questioning, Riley started crying and asked Van Sickle if she needed an attorney.

“This is not a usual proceeding. I can tell you that,” Van Sickle told Riley. “I’ve been a judge for 35 years, and this is the first time it’s ever occurred in any case I have. But it is important, and I feel the responsibility to do it.”

He later thanked Riley for coming in.

“It certainly was not my intent and is not my intent to embarrass you or anybody else,” the judge said.

Breean Beggs, who along with Jeffry Finer represents Zehm’s mother and estate, said he understands the legal decision for why Van Sickle allowed Thompson into the hearings.

“As agonizing as it would be for jurors to be questioned in front of Thompson, we trust that the system will work as it was intended … and their verdict will be upheld,” he said.

None of the jurors, including Riley, said they used outside influences or came to any conclusions prior to deliberations.

“Seldom did we talk about the actual things that were going on in the court other than, you know, when are they going to call us,” she said. “We just talked about general things, kids, families, horses, Alpacas, you know.

“I think it’s human nature … if you have a witness that behaved or responded in certain ways, you go, wow, what was that all about?” she said. “The one I can remember … is Mr. Moses. He was just so aggressive and angry that it, it befuddled all of us.”

This story is developing. Read full coverage in Friday’s edition of The Spokesman-Review.

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