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Clark: Justice finally served in Thompson case

Sun., Nov. 18, 2012

It’s a good day, Spokane.

There’s no snow in the potholes, the river’s still running and Karl Thompson Jr. is already ensconced in a federal lockup on the other side of the state.

Sorry, but you won’t find me joining the gripers and grousers who are sore about the ex-cop getting just 51 months for his unwarranted and vicious attack on Otto Zehm six-plus years ago.

I’ve been beating this drum too long for that.

I remember too well the lonely days when our do-nothing county prosecutor, Steve Tucker, refused to touch this case as if it were radioactive.

I remember, too, that the city’s official and shameful position was that Thompson did nothing wrong and that Zehm was to blame.

I was just some kook columnist ranting in the paper about a lost cause and giving away 5,000 Otto buttons to keep people from forgetting.

Oh, boy, do I remember.

Now don’t get me wrong.

Had I been doling out punishment, Thompson would be serving a year apiece for each time he struck Zehm with his macho stick, the so-called “unbreakable” ironwood baton.

Add on a couple more years to cover the electro-shocks that were delivered via Taser.

That would have ol’ Karl serving something like 15 years, I believe.

Yeah, that’s fair.

But Fred Van Sickle was the U.S. District Court judge on the bench, not I.

Because of that wild card, Thompson’s fate was in serious doubt practically right up to the end of a nervous legal showdown that took place all day Thursday in a downtown federal courtroom.

I know because I sat in the press gallery watching this gut-wrenching drama that included the video display of numerous autopsy photos of Zehm, who was pronounced dead two days after the attack.

Now, it’s true Zehm’s heart stopped because of a plastic mask that was placed over his face in case the hog-tied man dared to spit.

The mask had a nickel-sized air hole that was designed for use with an oxygen tank. Except nobody bothered to hook one up, and the poor man couldn’t breathe.

So while you can’t legally pin the death on Thompson, the autopsy photos show enough gruesome marks and blood pooling under the scalp to prove that an aggravated assault had occurred.

Last year, a federal jury in Yakima convicted Thompson on two counts: using excessive force and obstructing justice by lying to investigators to cover up what he had done.

For sentencing purposes, however, prosecutors Tim Durkin and Victor Boutros had to convince Van Sickle to go well beyond an initial pre-sentence report that recommended 27 to 33 months.

Durkin and Boutros were nothing less than masterful in laying out the facts and the points of law that pushed the applicable sentence range above the 100-month mark.

But while ultimately agreeing with the prosecutors, Van Sickle still used his judicial discretion to reduce the sentence to the aforementioned 51 months due to Thompson’s stellar life and character.

What rubbish.

It shouldn’t mean beans that Thompson was once a good man who fought in Vietnam, enforced the law, and was probably nice to children and small animals.

We all should aspire to be so saintly.

The issue that matters, however, is what this veteran officer did to an innocent civilian who was shopping for a Diet Pepsi and a Snickers in a North Division Zip Trip on March 18, 2006.

Zehm had been wrongfully reported as a possible thief. Thompson took the call. Fine. His job was to question the man and find out the truth.

Had he done that, Zehm would no doubt still be buying candy bars.

Thompson, however, barged into the store and started swinging before Zehm could get a word out.

We often report that Zehm suffered from a mental illness.

I believe it didn’t matter. Store video cameras show Thompson was on the man with such swift ferocity that what followed could have happened to you or me or anyone.

And as long as I’m venting, I’d also like to say that I’m also sick to death of the word “tragedy” being used by the defense to describe this encounter between Thompson and Zehm.

“We have to look at this for what it is,” lawyer Carl Oreskovich told the press after the sentencing, “a horrible tragedy, and not make it a political issue.”

And Oreskovich again: “The tragedy could not be any more significant than what he (Thompson) faces here today.”

Give it a rest, Carl.

This was no inexplicable calamity like an earthquake or perfect storm. Karl Thompson committed a naked, willful and criminal act, and that’s exactly what the jury ruled.

The only people who should have the right to use the “T” word are members of the Zehm family.

And so this long, tense day in court wound down with only one more shocker left to come.

It happened moments after Van Sickle finally pronounced the sentence, and I couldn’t believe my ears.

Oreskovich launched into a passionate attempt to convince the judge not to send Thompson to prison, but to let him remain free on appeal, just like he’d been getting away with for the last year.

I think I lapsed into a state of shock after this.

“Trying to play the judge for a fool,” I scribbled in my notebook.

If audacity were a crime, Oreskovich would be joining Thompson on the West Side.

Fortunately, U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby offered some wicked-smart legal reasoning that, in lay terms, suggested:

Judge, if you allow this convicted and now-sentenced felon to continue to skirt justice, the peasants will surely storm the castle.

Message received. And so a little before 5:30 p.m., Van Sickle grunted the magic words, ordering Thompson to “be taken into custody at this time.”

And showing no more emotion than a stone, the former law enforcer put his hands behind his back. A marshal swiftly slipped on some cuffs and led the convict quietly out a back door and to a new life.

It’s a good day, Spokane.

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432

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