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Doug Clark: Zehm didn’t die in obscurity, thanks to unsung heroes

Tim Durkin, left, and Jim McDevitt, right, were the unsung heroes in achieving justice for Otto Zehm, center. (File / File The Spokesman-Review)
Tim Durkin, left, and Jim McDevitt, right, were the unsung heroes in achieving justice for Otto Zehm, center. (File / File The Spokesman-Review)

Friday marks the 10th anniversary of the day an innocent 36-year-old janitor went shopping for some junk food only to be savagely attacked by a Spokane cop.

Seems like the right time to thank a couple of the unsung heroes who kept Otto Zehm from dying in obscurity.

Jim McDevitt comes to mind.

As U.S. attorney, McDevitt made the call to go after Karl Thompson Jr., the aforementioned police officer who clubbed and shocked Zehm with a stun gun inside a north Spokane Zip Trip on March 18, 2006.

Until some recent nosing around, I never fully appreciated how brave McDevitt’s desire for justice really was. He caught serious flak from within and without, and not many government officials will tolerate that.

There’s a good reason why Thompson, who in 2011 was convicted by a federal jury, remains Washington state’s first and only successful civil rights prosecution against a law enforcement officer.

Going after cops, no matter how dirty they may be, won’t get you an invitation to the next Police Guild gala.

Nobody wanted this case pursued.

Not our mayor. Not our police chief. Not our city attorney’s office. Certainly not our county prosecutor.

Their names aren’t even worth mentioning now.

The FBI didn’t want to touch it until much later in the process.

Not that McDevitt wants to hear any more about all this. He gave me the no-comment brush-off when I called to extend my gratitude.

Otto Zehm, he told me in so many words, was over and done. We dogs of the press should go dig up some fresher material.

McDevitt, 72, is retired from the Department of Justice. He’s now helping his pal, Mayor David Condon, get out of a jam by running the SPD for a few months.

And good luck on that one, Jim.

But I didn’t care if McDevitt stood on one leg and juggled rabbits. I called to let him know that I had never fully understood how unpopular his decision to launch that federal investigation was.

He can refuse to look in the rear-view mirror all he wants. But the story of what happened 10 years ago is so relevant it should be taught in our schools.

It’s all about fairness and equity and how everyone, no matter how low on the social strata, is worthy of justice.

Zehm, who had a mental illness, never knew that his eccentric behavior had scared two young women earlier at an ATM, scared them enough to call the police. They described the large, sandy-haired man as a possible thief, maybe even high on drugs.

That’s all it took to light the fuse.

Thompson, who caught the call, charged into a Zip Trip like a running back headed for six points.

Baton unleashed, he chopped away at Zehm until deciding to use his Taser.

The cavalry arrived and piled on. Zehm was hogtied on the quickie mart floor and left to suffocate when some joker, fearing the bound man might spit, stuck a plastic mask over his face without hooking it to an oxygen source.

Zehm died two days later without ever regaining consciousness.

Then the cover-up began.

Cops didn’t merely circle the wagons, they erected a Trump-sized wall of bull.

The “official” story was that Zehm had lunged at Thompson, using his plastic pop bottle the way Luke used a lightsaber.

The store’s video cameras, however, told a far different story.

God bless those tapes. Without them there would be no grand jury indictment, no trial, no conviction and no reason to also thank Tim Durkin, the federal prosecutor who nailed Thompson in a Yakima courtroom.

After four emotionally charged weeks, the jury found Thompson guilty of excessive force as well as a lesser charge of lying to investigators about what he had done. He later received a sentence of 51 months in prison.

Also tight-lipped, the assistant United States attorney politely declined my request for comment.

What is it with these feds, anyway?

Even so, Durkin, now 53, succeeded against long odds.

How long?

For starters, charges against law enforcement officers have the lowest conviction rates.

If that wasn’t tough enough, the prosecutor faced U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle, who seemed to ask “How high?” every time the defense yelled, “Jump!”

Just asking, but how does a prosecution lose all 13 pretrial motions?

Thompson’s legal scheme team goaded and challenged Durkin and his co-trial counsel, Aine Ahmed, 48, throughout. (Counting all the failed appeals, taxpayers wound up paying $750,000 for the disgraced cop’s defense.)

It struck me as oddly appropriate that Thompson’s recent release from prison came just a month before the 10th anniversary, but it’s time to get past all that.

I have a good friend who’s still livid that justice for Zehm was served incompletely.

He’s technically right. Only one other officer, Tim Moses, would be punished in 2013 for lying to federal agents who investigated the encounter between Thompson and Zehm.

A handful of others should have been charged similarly, but by then the air had gone out of the balloon.

Blame it on a lack of will or a change of leadership. Blame whatever you want.

But life is rarely perfect or fair, and sometimes you have to be happy for what you can get.

Noon Friday I plan on taking one last trip to the Zip Trip where it all started. If I can find them I’ll hand out the last of the some-5,000 “Otto” buttons I gave away during the early years, when it looked like no one in authority cared.

It was good to be proven wrong.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.


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