Judge says city shares blame for man’s death
A federal judge rejected demands that former Spokane police Officer Karl Thompson Jr. pay $825,000 in restitution to taxpayers and the family of Otto Zehm.
Thompson is imprisoned in Safford, Ariz. A jury convicted him of using excessive force and lying to investigators about the death of Zehm, an unarmed janitor.
U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle ruled the city of Spokane already accepted responsibility for its failure to adequately train and supervise the police force. The city paid Zehm’s family $1.67 million to settle a civil lawsuit.
Federal prosecutors wanted Thompson to pay for Zehm’s medical expenses, attorney fees, lost wages, Zehm’s cremation and for the memorial plaque the city installed in Mission Park.
Though Thompson provoked the behavior that led to Zehm’s death and bears financial liability, Van Sickle decided this week that Zehm’s mother, Ann Zehm, already has been paid through the city’s settlement of the family’s lawsuit against the city. She is not entitled “to recover twice for the same losses,” Van Sickle said.
Van Sickle rejected a request from prosecutors to require Thompson to reimburse the city, ruling that Zehm’s injuries were not solely Thompson’s fault.
“The city implicitly conceded that it harmed Mr. Zehm by failing to adequately train and supervise its officers,” Van Sickle’s ruling said.
City spokesman Brian Coddington said the city “respects the judge’s decision.”
“The city was anxious to get to a point where we can move forward,” Coddington said. “We’re happy that that’s been able to occur.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin argued that if the city was not reimbursed, taxpayers would effectively pay for Thompson’s criminal conduct because federal law requires criminals in many cases to pay restitution. “The city cannot as a matter of local public policy immunize (the) defendant from his culpable criminal conduct,” Durkin wrote.
Durkin declined to comment Tuesday on the judge’s ruling.
Van Sickle said “it is likely, though by no means certain” that Zehm’s death resulted from the way he was restrained by other officers on the scene, not by Thompson’s actions. He noted, however, that Thompson “is the one who provoked Mr. Zehm’s resistance” and for a time directed the other officers on scene.
Thompson was deemed not liable for the fees paid by the family to attorneys and investigators who worked on the lawsuit filed against the city. The family agreed to pay one-third of the $1.67 million settlement from the city and its insurance company to its legal team.
Van Sickle said if it were clear that Thompson was solely at fault for Zehm’s death, he likely would have ordered Thompson to repay the city. But, he said, the city bears at least partial responsibility.
Attempts made to reach Thompson’s attorney, Carl Oreskovich, were unsuccessful.
Breean Beggs, one of the Zehm family’s attorneys, said he was not surprised by the ruling. He noted that Thompson’s attorney fees were paid by the government after a judge ruled that he was indigent.
“It’s kind of another situation where the taxpayers are paying for Thompson’s actions,” Beggs said.
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