Thompson sentencing in Otto Zehm case set for Thursday
After living free for a year as attorneys argued for a new trial, former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. will learn his punishment for using excessive force and lying to investigators about his 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm.
Barring a last-minute delay, U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle will sentence Thompson on Thursday, more than a year after a jury in Yakima convicted him in a case that federal officials described as an “extensive cover-up” and that prompted widespread calls for police reform.
The initial pre-sentence report indicated that Thompson should face 27 to 33 months in federal prison. However, federal prosecutors have indicated they want at least half a day to argue why that calculation should be higher.
Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich also has argued in writing that Van Sickle should consider giving the decorated former officer a sentence that includes no jail time.
But attorneys on both sides of the case have cited legal decisions derived from one of the most controversial cases of police brutality in this country’s history: the 1991 beating of Rodney King.
“It may be the only parallel case that people can readily identify,” said Jeffry Finer, who teaches law and represented the family of Otto Zehm. “No one knows what the judge will impose. It is conceivable that it would be a no-jail order, but that would be a stretch. I wouldn’t expect that.”
In the King case, just as in Thompson’s, federal prosecutors sought a 10-year sentence for the convicted officers.
But in 1993, U.S. District Judge John G. Davies sentenced Los Angeles police officers Stacey C. Koon and Laurence M. Powell to 32 months in prison, noting that King – a paroled felon who had fled from police – bore much of the responsibility for the beating because he continued to resist arrest.
City attorneys and Oreskovich have made similar arguments in Zehm’s civil case, saying that the confrontation was complicated by the refusal of Zehm – who was developmentally delayed and had schizophrenia – to stop resisting when Thompson started beating him with a baton following an erroneous call that he had stolen money from a nearby ATM.
Oreskovich has taken his arguments a step further, saying that Thompson should receive leniency because of a lack of criminal history and a long, distinguished law enforcement career. On Tuesday, Oreskovich submitted several letters from Thompson’s friends and co-workers.
“His current situation is, and will always be, a complete injustice,” wrote Dan Johnson, a family friend. Thompson “and his family have suffered enough! Karl Thompson is definitely one of the Good Guys!”
But Finer said Thompson was convicted under a federal statute that already takes into account that the assailant was an on-duty law enforcement officer who went too far.
“When the guideline range was set, it was already understood that somebody guilty of that particular crime likely would be … someone who is otherwise law-abiding and has a lifetime in law enforcement,” Finer said.
Asked if he expected a similar sentence to that handed down to Koon and Powell, Finer said that sentence would fall well within the guidelines. But he added that federal judges have wide discretion.
“Until we know what the judge says, I don’t think it helps guessing,” Finer said. “If the judge is in the middle ground, both sides will say the judge got it wrong. I think it’s highly likely that both sides will appeal, unless one side is entirely satisfied.”
Local defense attorney Rob Cossey, who is representing Officer Sandra McIntyre, said he hasn’t heard from federal prosecutors for several months about the target letters sent to his client and Officer Tim Moses about their intent to charge them with obstruction as part of the Thompson investigation.
“I would think the overall community would be upset if (Thompson) didn’t get any time at all,” Cossey said.
But, he said, he had no clue what the judge will ultimately decide.
“I really respect Judge Van Sickle,” Cossey said.
“I think he will do what he thinks is fair.”