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Judge unseals Zehm records from secret hearings

Thu., July 26, 2012, 2:30 p.m.

A federal judge today opened the court files that he sealed regarding secret hearings held in Yakima to query jurors who convicted former Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. in connection with his deadly confrontation with Otto Zehm.

U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle opened the files, pending some limited work to black out the names of those questioned, following a motion to intervene by attorneys representing The Spokesman-Review.

Federal prosecutors filed a court filing Wednesday supporting the release of the records and defense attorney Carl Oreskovich previously filed a separate motion indicating he did not object to the release of the records.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Harrington said the records could be available as early as Friday.

Van Sickle scheduled the secret hearings in May just as other attorneys were working to settle the civil suit filed by Zehm’s mother and estate. Oreskovich and his firm had alleged that jurors discussed the case prior to deliberations and had been exposed to media reports during the trial.

The jury convicted Thompson on Nov. 2 of using excessive force and lying to investigators during his encounter with Zehm, a 36-year-old janitor who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The evidence showed that Zehm had not committed a crime on March 18, 2006, when two young women erroneously reported that he had stolen money from their account at a nearby ATM.

Thompson responded to the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division St. and immediately engaged Zehm, striking him multiple times with a baton and shocking him with a Taser.

Several other officers responded to Thompson’s call for aid and eventually hog-tied Zehm and forced him to remain on his stomach, which violated department procedure. One officer then placed a plastic mask over Zehm’s face, and he eventually stopped breathing.

Zehm never regained consciousness and died two days later.

Police officials maintained for months that Zehm was the aggressor and that he “attacked” and “lunged” at Thompson, prompting the struggle. But the video clearly showed Zehm retreating in what one U.S. Department of Justice later called an “extensive cover-up.”

In May, the city leaders settled a $1.67 million civil suit and apologized to Zehm’s mother. Plans are being made to place a plaque to honor Zehm’s memory at the picnic pavilion in Mission Park.

Van Sickle scheduled a hearing for Aug. 31 for attorneys to provide oral arguments about various efforts by Oreskovich to obtain a new trial. As a result, Thompson’s sentencing – which originally was set for Jan. 27 – will have been postponed more than nine months since his conviction.

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