The upcoming sentencing hearing for former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. was postponed Thursday to give defense attorneys more time to investigate recent developments that might bolster their argument for a new trial.
U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle vacated the Jan. 27 hearing after a video analyst hired by the U.S. Justice Department advised the court that federal prosecutors may have withheld potentially beneficial information to the defense in the excessive force case.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office disagreed, but Van Sickle ordered that the sentencing hearing be postponed indefinitely and extended the deadline to Jan. 24 for Thompson’s lawyers to submit arguments for why their client should get a new trial. The extension is intended to give defense attorney Carl Oreskovich enough time to determine whether allegations made last month by forensic video analyst Grant Fredericks should be included in their request.
In the order, Van Sickle acknowledged his ruling was “unusual.”
“The Court received a letter ‘out of the blue’ as it were,” the judge wrote. “The letter set in motion a chain of events that led to this order.”
Thompson, 64, was convicted in November by a federal jury of using excessive force in the 2006 beating and death of unarmed janitor Otto Zehm, who had been mistakenly implicated in a potential theft. At least one other Spokane police officer remains under FBI investigation for her role in the department’s response to the fatal encounter, which prompted widespread calls for police reform and contributed to a voter-driven shakeup at City Hall in November.
Following the conviction, federal prosecutors indicated they may seek a prison term of eight to 10 years, though defense attorneys are expected to argue that Thompson’s decades of service as a decorated police officer should warrant a significantly more lenient penalty.
Triggering the Thursday developments was a Dec. 1 request from Fredericks asking the court to release him from the confidentiality agreement he’d signed with the Department of Justice. Fredericks told the court that he felt prosecutors improperly withheld information from the defense but that the confidentiality agreement prohibited him from providing specific details.
A letter written by Fredericks detailing why he considered the prosecution’s disclosures to the defense team to be “inaccurate, misleading, or incomplete” was provided to the defense. His allegations, however, were not included in Van Sickle’s order postponing the sentencing hearing.
Federal prosecutors late Thursday disputed any suggestion that they improperly withheld anything, noting that Thompson’s defense has been provided with hundreds of pages of reports since 2007 that Fredericks had prepared for the Justice Department. Fredericks was among several video experts that the Justice Department hired to analyze convenience store security footage of the fatal police encounter with Zehm.
“It is the United States’ position that Mr. Fredericks and his counsel do not understand nor appreciate the full nature and extent of the United States’ discovery disclosures to the defense that concerns Mr. Fredericks, his reports, statements and/or testimony,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy M. Durkin said in documents responding to the new assertions.
Durkin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Rice, the office’s spokesman, declined further comment.
Oreskovich did not return a call seeking comment.
Fredericks was at the center of an earlier confidentiality dispute between federal prosecutors and Spokane City Hall.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office invoked the confidentiality agreement in 2007 to prohibit Fredericks, who had provided forensic video services to the city before being hired by the Justice Department, from continuing to give Assistant Spokane City Attorney Rocco Treppiedi copies of the forensic work paid for by the Justice Department.
Fredericks, owner of Spokane-based Forensic Video Solutions, was testifying Thursday at a homicide trial in Texas and unable to comment.
Breean Beggs, who is representing Otto Zehm’s family in a civil suit against the city of Spokane, called today’s developments “typical post trial maneuvers to try to undo what the jury did.”
“I don’t think it will result in anything substantive in the long run,” he said. “The jury saw the video straight up, so they made their own decisions on that.”