A jury convicted Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. of needlessly beating Otto Zehm and then lying about it to cover up his actions. The verdict was delivered in federal court in Yakima on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011 – five years and seven months since Zehm’s life ended and questions of police accountability began.
On March 18, 2006, Otto Zehm was beaten, shocked and hog-tied by police officers in a north Spokane Zip Trip, after he was accused erroneously of theft. He died two days later at a Spokane hospital. Thompson was the first responding officer.
On May 21, 2012, the Spokane City Council closed one chapter of the excessive force case by finalizing the $1.67 million settlement with the family of Otto Zehm. The deal was reached in mediation between city representatives, including Mayor David Condon, and Zehm family attorneys.
Condon has issued a handwritten apology to Zehm’s mother, Anna, and recently, the Spokane Park Board placed a memorial plaque for Zehm in Mission Park. Also, the police department must provide crisis-intervention training for all Spokane police officers who aren’t scheduled to retire within a year and provide $50,000 for a consultant to help the city implement changes to its use-of-force policy.
At the Zip Trip convenience store, officers confronted Zehm, 36, who was holding a pop bottle. Zehm was beaten with a baton, shocked with a Taser and left “hogtied” on the floor.
In May 2006, Spokane County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken ruled that Zehm died as a result of homicide, with lack of oxygen to the brain as the official cause.
In March 2009, the Center for Justice filed a federal civil rights suit against the city of Spokane and nine of its police officers on behalf of Zehm’s family. The lawsuit alleged that officers used excessive force and that the police department and its former acting chief, Jim Nicks, engaged in a conspiracy to portray Zehm as the aggressor.
In June 2009, a federal grand jury handed down two indictments against Thompson, accusing him of violating Zehm’s civil rights.
Documents filed in April 2010 raised serious new allegations in the case. In them, federal prosecutors suggest members of the Spokane Police Department tried to cover up their handling of the confrontation with Zehm and that the agency’s investigation clearing officers of wrongdoing was incomplete and inaccurate.
A timeline of the case shows five years of complex legal wrangling involving the criminal case against Thompson and a $2.9 million civil claim by Zehm’s mother and estate against the city of Spokane.
Recently unsealed federal court files show that the lead investigator within the police department, detective Terry Ferguson, knew that if the video of Zehm’s death became public, the results would be ‘inflammatory.’ Thompson also sent emails to police union officials requesting that they research deaths caused by a condition known as ‘excited delirium.’
Thompson’s sentencing on Nov. 15, 2012 followed a complex legal process that included a rare re-examination of jurors. Federal authorities also have questioned the legitimacy of Thompson’s divorce, which was used as a basis for a judge to declare him indigent, allowing Thompson to use more than half a million dollars in taxpayer money for his defense.
Updated Nov. 28, 2012 by Riley Jessett, intern
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Latest updates in this topic
Mayor promises review of Zehm case
Sept. 10, 2011 in City on Page A1 A hastily arranged briefing by Spokane Mayor Mary Verner on Friday announcing her desire for a complete internal and external review of the Otto Zehm controversy turned into a platform … 39
Mayor promises ‘thorough’ review of Otto Zehm case
Sept. 9, 2011 in City Spokane Mayor Mary Verner announced this morning that a “thorough internal and external review” of the five-year-old death of Otto Zehm would start when the legal cases are finished. 78
Condon calls Zehm case “indictment” on city government
Sept. 6, 2011 in City, News Spokane mayoral challenger David Condon today called the city’s handling of the Otto Zehm case “an indictment” on city government, and called for greater police oversight as well as at … 67
Feds sought meetings with city leaders on Zehm case in 2009
Aug. 28, 2011 in City on Page B1 U.S. Department of Justice officials two years ago had significant enough “ethical concerns” with the city of Spokane’s legal department that they asked to meet with Mayor Mary Verner, police … 101
Council debates oversight rules
Aug. 23, 2011 in City on Page A1 Spokane City Council members suggested they may need voters to save the stronger police oversight rules they approved last year, by working to place the concept on the ballot. Passions … 82
Council late to get Zehm news
Aug. 21, 2011 in City on Page B1 A majority of Spokane City Council members say they weren’t told until this month that the city’s assistant police chief believes officers violated department policies in the beating of a … 109
Revised Nicks statement drops chief’s opinion
Aug. 21, 2011 in City on Page B1 The sworn and signed declaration of Assistant Chief Jim Nicks that details his concerns about the police confrontation with Otto Zehm has been revised to leave out a detail about … 42
Timeline of events in Otto Zehm case
Aug. 21, 2011 in City on Page B7 • March 18, 2006: Otto Zehm, 36, a mentally ill and unemployed janitor, is beaten, Tasered and hogtied inside a Zip Trip convenience store by seven Spokane police officers after … 17
Many things Jim Nicks didn’t do in Zehm case
Mayor pushes to resolve Zehm suit
Aug. 17, 2011 in City on Page A1 Spokane Mayor Mary Verner announced Tuesday that she is seeking “all courses of action” to resolve the civil case surrounding the city’s handling of the fatal 2006 confrontation between Spokane … 28
Verner vows to seek resolution in Zehm civil suit
Aug. 16, 2011 in City, News Spokane Mayor Mary Verner announced today that she is seeking “all courses of action” to end the civil case surrounding the fatal 2006 confrontation between Spokane police and mentally ill … 33
Expert: Officers caused death
Aug. 16, 2011 in City on Page A5 A medical expert hired by the Spokane police officer facing criminal charges over the fatal Otto Zehm confrontation is blaming other officers at the scene for causing the unarmed janitor’s … 35
Medical expert: Officers caused Zehm’s death
Aug. 15, 2011 in City, News A medical expert hired by the Spokane police officer facing criminal charges over the fatal Otto Zehm confrontation is blaming other officers at the scene for causing the unarmed janitor’s … 25
Doug Clark: Nicks’ exit is past due
Aug. 11, 2011 in City on Page A5 “ Give (Jim Nicks) the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the acting chief hadn’t bothered to carefully examine the evidence before running his mouth and handing Spokane a bill of … 46
Shawn Vestal: Truth about Zehm sure took a while
Key players and contradictions
City reconsiders Zehm strategy
Aug. 10, 2011 in City on Page A1 The Spokane Police Department’s second-in-command believes an officer didn’t follow department policy in the fatal 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm, contradicting his previous statements. That revelation prompted Spokane Mayor Mary … 40
Ombudsman backer cites Zehm case
Aug. 10, 2011 in City on Page A10 A city councilman is continuing his push to keep expanded investigative authority for Spokane’s police ombudsman, citing new disclosures that the assistant chief privately considered his department’s investigation of the … 2
Verner re-evaluating city stance on Zehm
Aug. 9, 2011 in City, News Spokane Mayor Mary Verner today acknowledged that the city is re-evaluating its legal position in the Otto Zehm controversy after new court documents indicate officers violated departmental policies in the … 56
Clark: Thompson trial leaving out important truths about Zehm