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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Only two officers used Tasers on Zehm
April 6, 2006 in City on Page B3 The Spokane Police Department for the first time Wednesday said that only two of seven responding police officers used their Tasers against 36-year-old Otto Zehm during a March 18 scuffle. …
Questions linger at memorial service
Police seek man’s medical records
April 4, 2006 in City on Page A1 Nine days after Otto Zehm died after a scuffle with Spokane police, detectives told a judge they needed to seize the mentally ill man’s medical records because he was under …
Video of scuffle kept secret
March 31, 2006 in City on Page B1 Security camera footage of a scuffle between police and a developmentally disabled janitor who died two days later will remain hidden from the public under orders from Spokane County Prosecutor …
Officers in fight defended
March 24, 2006 in City on Page B1 No one knows yet what killed Otto Zehm, but acting Spokane Police Chief Jim Nicks insisted Thursday it wasn’t his officers. “We cannot speculate on the actual cause of death; …
Officers back on beat after fatal fight
Man who fought police dies in hospital
March 21, 2006 in City on Page B1 A 35-year-old man who was hospitalized Saturday after fighting with police died about 3:30 p.m. Monday at Deaconess Medical Center. An autopsy is planned to determine the cause of death …
Fight with police injures man
March 19, 2006 in City on Page B3 A Spokane man was in critical condition late Saturday after a “very horrific fight” with several police officers in a Division Street convenience store, said Jim Nicks, acting Spokane police …