After being handed a sentence Thursday of more than four years in federal prison – the culmination of six years of investigations, legal action and community soul-searching – former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. walked away passively in handcuffs.
U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle admonished the courtroom in advance that demonstrations of any kind would be inappropriate, and the sentence was greeted with silence by both Thompson and Zehm supporters.
Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich lost a last minute plea to keep the decorated officer out of jail pending appeal of his convictions for using excessive force and lying to investigators to cover up his actions.
“There is a rift between the community and our police department. Thompson … was held out for all the wrongs in this community,” Oreskovich said. “We have to look at this for what it is, a horrible tragedy and not make it a political issue.”
But federal prosecutors put the blame squarely on the officer who rushed into a convenience store on March 18, 2006, and started beating the mentally disabled Zehm, who had been wrongly implicated in a possible theft.
Zehm suffered multiple baton strikes and several shocks from Tasers during a 20-minute struggle involving multiple officers, who finally hogtied him and placed a mask over his face. Zehm stopped breathing and died two days later.
Spokane Police officials immediately claimed that Zehm had “lunged” at Thompson, provoking the attack. They maintained the false version of events for nearly four months until a public release of the video showed Zehm cowering and retreating from the advancing Thompson.
After Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker did nothing with the case, the FBI took over and found evidence of what one federal official termed an “extensive cover-up.” The probe culminated in 2009 with felony charges against Thompson.
U.S. Attorney Mike Ormbsy, who credited the work of assistant Timothy Durkin and Justice Department trial attorney Victor Boutros, said the prosecutors started the day thinking they would be arguing to preserve a court pre-sentencing report recommending about two years in federal prison.
But by the end of the afternoon, Durkin and Boutros had convinced U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle that the circumstances of the case called for an actual sentencing range of nine to 11 years for the 65-year-old Thompson.
The judge then cited Thompson’s lifelong service as a law enforcement officer and gave him a downward “variance” in imposing a sentence of 51 months in federal prison, which is 19 months longer than the two officers convicted in the 1991 beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles.
“It is my hope that my efforts to implement and establish a sentence that is reasonable will allow some closure for the victim’s family and friends,” the judge said. He also hoped it would allow “law enforcement in Spokane and the citizens to move on.”
But it appears that relationship still needs some mending, several sources said.
Dale Zehm, the cousin of Otto Zehm, testified earlier in the day about how the family fears retribution from officers.
“I never heard one time where Karl Thompson said anything but that Otto deserved what happened,” he said.
Zehm then turned and looked directly at Thompson when he said: “I wonder what Officer Thompson would have felt if this would have happened to his child.”
Breean Beggs read a letter from Otto’s mother, Ann Zehm, who wrote that she has forgiven Thompson.
“Every night after dinner, Otto called me on the phone to talk and tell me he loved me,” she wrote. “I think about Otto every day. I often cry for him. It took over six years for the City of Spokane to apologize to me for its officers attacking and killing my son. I am still waiting for an apology from Karl Thompson.”
Thompson took the opportunity to speak and he offered his condolences. But he continues to maintain his innocence despite a jury convicting him last November of using excessive force and lying to investigators to cover up his actions.
“Especially to Mrs. Zehm and also to the family: I’m deeply sorry for the loss of Mr. Zehm,” Thompson said. “I’m also a parent. I know nothing equals the love of our children. His death was exactly opposite to everything I’ve dedicated my life to.
“Mr. Zehm will always be a part of me. I accept responsibility for my actions. Again, I am deeply sorry for this tragic loss.”
Earlier in the day, Boutros – the Justice Department attorney – asked Van Sickle to put himself in Zehm’s shoes to help understand the horror he must have felt when looked up to see an officer rushing at him.
“He knows that he’s committed no crime. He goes to the Zip Trip like he does every night. When he turns around, he sees this officer rushing at him with a baton over head who never stops, never asks any questions, then strikes him … in the head and clavicle and neck areas,” Boutros said. “This we can all agree would be … terrifying.”
Zehm’s last words were: “All I wanted was a Snickers.” That showed that the 36-year-old janitor, who had schizophrenia, was trying to figure out why he was attacked, Boutros said.
“He never understood … as a swarm of police officers come, kneeing him in the side, delivering pain. It’s almost worse than drowning. This is an assault being perpetrated by those who are supposed to be your protectors.”
Oreskovich argued that Thompson should have been given more credit for a career that includes a medal for bravery in Vietnam and a career dedicated to serving others.
“The tragedy could not be any more significant than what he faces here today,” Oreskovich said of Thompson. “You live to be a certain person and how it can flip. You become the villain when all he was doing was trying to do was his job.”
Durkin and Boutros both successfully argued, based on case law from the Rodney King beating, that the federal statute under which Thompson was convicted already had taken into account that the assailant would be a law enforcement officer with a clean criminal history.
“Police officers are given enormous power. And that power comes with a sacred public trust,” Boutros said in court. “It’s not OK for them to lie about their conduct. The lack of public trust is mended when they see officers being held accountable for that. It improves the credibility of the criminal justice system to know that its enforcers are not above the law.”
But that is what one of the jurors believes Van Sickle’s sentence for Thompson showed.
Diane Riley was the forewoman of the jury that convicted Thompson on Nov. 2. Upon learning Thompson’s sentence, Riley wrote The Spokesman-Review expressing her disappointment.
“How many not-rich non-white criminals get their sentences discounted because their co-workers found them a ‘leader’ personality?” she asked. “I will never ever again serve on a jury – nor will I ever again have ‘blind’ ‘naive’ faith in our legal system. It’s rigged.”
As for Ann Zehm, she wrote that she hopes the prison sentence will serve as a daily reminder to Thompson “so that he knows that he did wrong.
“He will someday be released to his family,” she wrote. “Otto is never coming back to me.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter