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
City says Zehm 911 recording was mislabeled
Oct. 31, 2009 in City on Page A1 A woman describing Otto Zehm as “on something” to an emergency dispatcher can be heard on a video compilation released by police in October 2006, but not on an audio … 15
When official voices obfuscate, a little translation clarifies
Oct. 27, 2009 in City on Page A5 Once again, doubt is being raised about the “official” facts regarding Otto Zehm, the mentally ill janitor who died following a violent 2006 encounter with cops in a Spokane convenience … 4
Work on federal suit must wait, judge rules
Taser issues advisory on use of stun guns
Oct. 21, 2009 in City, Nation/World Taser International is advising police agencies across the nation not to shoot its stun guns at a suspect’s chest. The Arizona-based company says such action poses a risk — albeit … 19
911 call perplexes Zehm attorney
Oct. 9, 2009 in City on Page A5 Among the details, court filings, and other developments surrounding the high-profile Otto Zehm case is a loosely related mystery that’s been downplayed by attorneys on opposing sides of the legal … 1
Zehm’s mother can give statement, judge rules
Sept. 24, 2009 in City on Page A5 The ailing mother of a man who died after being struck, Tasered and hogtied by Spokane police officers should have a chance to have her statement preserved for a civil … 2
Police reject allegations by federal prosecutors
Sept. 23, 2009 in City on Page A1 Attorneys representing Spokane police in the Otto Zehm lawsuit launched a counterattack Tuesday against suggestions by federal prosecutors that they withheld information about the fatal confrontation in 2006. Sworn statements … 14
Zehm inquiry continuing
Sept. 17, 2009 in City on Page A1 More Spokane police officers could face criminal charges over the city’s handling of the fatal confrontation with unarmed janitor Otto Zehm, with newly filed court documents indicating a federal probe … 26
More charges could come in Zehm probe
Sept. 16, 2009 in News More Spokane Police officers could face criminal charges over the city’s handling of the fatal confrontation with unarmed janitor Otto Zehm, with newly filed court documents indicating a federal probe … 5
Feds unhappy with city attorney
Sept. 13, 2009 in City on Page B1 Federal prosecutors have grown increasingly critical of what they describe as questionable behavior by the Spokane Police Department’s chief legal adviser, who reportedly used his position to provide “traditionally confidential” … 7
Thompson supporters raise cash
Aug. 25, 2009 in City on Page A1 Friends of Otto Zehm wore small blue buttons that read “Otto” in support of the mentally ill janitor, after he died in 2006 following a struggle with Spokane police. Now … 18
U.S. to pay cop’s counsel in federal Zehm case
July 10, 2009 in City on Page A1 A federal magistrate ruled Thursday that the federal government should pay for the defense of Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. as he faces felony charges stemming from the … 7
Public to pay for Thompson’s defense
Officer on desk duty pending trial
July 3, 2009 in City on Page A7 The Spokane police officer facing federal charges in connection with the 2006 death of Otto Zehm will remain on the city’s payroll but has been reassigned to desk duty while … 2
Officer given desk duty while awaiting trial
Protesters call for police oversight
June 26, 2009 in City on Page A7 More than 100 people gathered in front of Spokane City Hall on Thursday evening to rally for police accountability and changes to an oversight process they see as flawed. Carrying … 2
Protesters rally for police accountability
Doug Clark: As city bungles Zehm incident, Apple shows some polish
Officer has lengthy, varied police career
June 25, 2009 in City on Page A1 Karl Thompson was at the top of his basic training academy class in 1997 when he was hired at 49 to join the Spokane Police Department’s uniformed division. Thompson brought … 13
In brief: Rally will promote police accountability
June 25, 2009 in City on Page A6 The Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, along with more than 10 community groups and the family of Shonto Pete, are planning a police accountability rally today from 5 …