Federal prosecutors today asked a judge to put himself in the shoes of Otto Zehm, the mentally disabled man who had not committed a crime but looked up to see a Spokane Police officer racing at him with a raised baton.
U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle heard three hours of argument today from prosecutors who are seeking a sentence between nine and 11 years in federal prison for Thompson, who was convicted last year of using excessive force and lying to investigators about his 2006 confrontation with Zehm. Zehm died two days after that encounter.
Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich is expected to argue why Thompson should receive a more lenient sentence this afternoon. In addition, argument this afternoon is expected to include letters from several friends and co-workers who are expected to say that the 65-year-old former officer was a trustworthy man with impeccable integrity
But this morning, Victor Boutros, a trial attorney from the U.S. Department of Justice, asked the Judge to consider what Zehm thought as he entered the Zip Trip on March 18, 2006.
“He was a simple and kind man who lived with simple pleasures,” Boutros said. “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 overhead who never stops, never asks any questions, then strikes him … in the head and clavicle and neck areas. This we can all agree would be … terrifying.”
Boutros also played a clip of the store’s surveillance video, which showed Thompson beating Zehm with a baton. Thompson stopped for a moment as he stood over Zehm and pulled out his Taser. While the video had no audio, Boutros directed viewers to a 7-year-old girl who covered her ears to blot out Zehm’s scream.
“What a horrible sight for these girls to see,” Boutros told the packed courtroom. “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.”
Boutros said the law favors officers, who are routinely forced to make split-second decisions. But in Thompson’s case, the decorated officer caused the situation by immediately striking Zehm, following an erroneous call by two young women that Zehm had stolen money from a nearby ATM.
“It was Officer Thompson who chose to attack and ambush Zehm, not the reverse,” Boutros said.
The case was compounded by Thompson lying to cover his actions, the attorney told the court.
“The defendant has had multiple opportunities over the course of years … to admit what he had done,” Boutros said. “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.”
Also speaking this morning were members of Zehm’s family and friends, although Thompson’s attorney argued against letting Zehm’s friends speak.
“It was very difficult to hear testimony by Spokane Police officers that was in contradiction to the actions on the video,” Zehm’s cousin Dale Zehm said. “I never heard one time where Karl Thompson said anything but that Otto deserved what happened.”
Dale 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.”