A federal judge refused Tuesday to order a new trial for former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., saying last year’s convictions for beating an unarmed janitor in 2006 and then lying about it should stand.
But it could be months before Thompson, whose lawyer says he will appeal the ruling, is sentenced for his role in the violent confrontation that led to the death of Otto Zehm, a mentally ill man mistakenly accused of theft.
“We will appeal this decision,” said Thompson’s lawyer, Carl Oreskovich. “We think that the right decision would have been to grant us a new trial and we are optimistic that the court of appeals will agree.”
In the meantime, Thompson will remain free. U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle, who canceled an earlier sentencing hearing for Thompson to give his legal team a chance to prepare arguments for a new trial, is expected to set a new date soon.
At the sentencing hearing, Thompson will either be taken into custody, will be allowed to self-report to prison or will be allowed to remain free pending appeals.
Mike Ormsby, U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington, said he won’t comment on an ongoing case.
Oreskovich argued on Aug. 31 that Thompson should receive a new trial because federal prosecutors neglected to disclose information to the defense that could have won his acquittal.
The decorated former officer was convicted by a federal jury in Yakima on Nov. 2 of using excessive force and lying to investigators in the violent encounter with Zehm, who was inside a Spokane convenience store when Thompson charged him with a nightstick and beat him to the ground. Other officers joined the melee and Zehm died two days after being beaten, shocked with a Taser and hog-tied.
Oreskovich said he’ll appeal based on the suppression of the government expert Grant Fredericks’ opinion, which Oreskovich called exculpatory. Fredericks, a videographer, was hired by the Justice Department to review security footage of the fatal confrontation.
When arguing for a new trial, Oreskovich said that a report on a meeting between FBI special agent Lisa Jangaard and Fredericks was inaccurate and mischaracterized Frederick’s opinions, which would have proven favorable to Thompson’s defense.
In his ruling, Van Sickle agreed that favorable evidence was withheld from the defense, but said “the possibility of a different outcome is not great enough to undermine confidence in the verdicts the jury rendered.”
He wrote, “To the contrary, the verdicts are worthy of the public’s confidence.”
Breann Beggs, who represented Zehm’s estate in the civil case, said the family is happy with the ruling, but the likely appeal comes as no surprise.
“I would fully expect them to appeal,” Beggs said. “They have a very well-qualified legal team and taxpayers have paid for an excellent defense for Mr. Thompson, so of course they are going to appeal and, of course, they are allowed to do that.”
However, he said, “We are confident that jury verdict will be upheld.”