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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A Community’s closure
Oct. 11, 2011 in City on Page A1 Otto Zehm’s death in 2006 polarized the community and sparked calls for reform. The complex legal battle over his death that followed has brought criticism of Spokane city leaders’ handling … 38
Council limits police reviews
Oct. 11, 2011 in City on Page A1 Spokane’s police ombudsman on Monday lost the power to independently investigate misconduct allegations against the city’s law enforcement officers. The Spokane City Council voted 5-2 Monday to repeal police oversight … 18
Clark: Venue change is slap to Spokane jurors
Oct. 6, 2011 in City on Page A5 The verdict is in. Anyone desiring to watch the upcoming federal trial of Karl Thompson Jr. – the Spokane cop whose deadly encounter with Otto Zehm earned him an excessive … 22
Zehm family feeling ‘shut out,’ lawyer says
Oct. 6, 2011 in City on Page A5 A federal judge will hold another hearing this morning after attorneys objected to moving the upcoming criminal trial of Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. to Yakima. U.S. District … 29
Feds ask judge to keep Zehm trial in Spokane
Oct. 5, 2011 in City, News A federal prosecutor has asked a judge to reconsider his Tuesday decision to move the upcoming criminal trial of Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. to Yakima. But defense … 14
Zehm trial moves to Yakima
Oct. 5, 2011 in City on Page A1 A federal judge Tuesday moved the upcoming criminal trial of Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. to Yakima after defense attorneys raised concerns that local media coverage of Thompson’s … 20
Zehm trial will be moved to Yakima
Oct. 4, 2011 in City, News A federal judge Tuesday moved the upcoming criminal trial of Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. to Yakima after defense attorneys had raised concerns about the extent of local … 58
Shawn Vestal: Zehm case demands city’s focus
Oct. 1, 2011 in City on Page B1 Never mind. The city of Spokane did a little double-checking Friday, and acknowledged that its explanation three weeks ago of a key question in the Otto Zehm case was wrong: … 66
City’s FAQ answers challenged
Sept. 30, 2011 in City on Page A1 Spokane city leaders are continuing to mislead the public about the fatal Otto Zehm confrontation, new court documents suggest. Federal authorities say city officials provided “patently false” information in a … 14
‘Slew of evidence’ in Zehm trial
Sept. 30, 2011 in City on Page A6 While attorneys got few final answers Thursday, they outlined the parameters that will determine the legal battleground for the Spokane police officer charged in the fatal confrontation with Otto Zehm. … 3
Consultant poised for Zehm case review
Sept. 25, 2011 in City on Page B10 When Spokane Mayor Mary Verner promised this month that there will be an internal review examining the death of Otto Zehm, it wasn’t the first time a city leader has … 24
Second officer under investigation in Zehm case identified
Sept. 22, 2011 in City on Page A5 With the excessive force trial of a Spokane police officer less than a month away, the identity of a second officer under active federal investigation in connection with the fatal … 35
Officer under federal investigation in Zehm case identified
Sept. 21, 2011 in City, News With the excessive force trial of a Spokane Police officer less than a month away, the identity of a second officer under active federal investigation in connection with the fatal … 29
Thompson wants trial moved
Sept. 16, 2011 in City on Page A5 The attorney representing Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. filed a motion Thursday asking a federal judge to move the upcoming trial because of “intense” media coverage and because … 10
Thompson attorney wants Zehm trial moved
Sept. 15, 2011 in City, News The attorney representing Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. filed a motion today asking a federal judge to move the upcoming Oct. 11 trial because of “intense” media coverage … 23
Mayor’s FAQs on Zehm case short on real answers, again
Sept. 14, 2011 in City on Page A5 It is sad that the Otto Zehm case is becoming a political spectacle. Sad, and absolutely appropriate. Because it’s hard to see what else – apart from insistent public pressure … 51
Nicks set to retire as chief steps down
Sept. 14, 2011 in City on Page A1 The Spokane Police Department’s top two officers are on their way out, leaving city officials to find new leadership as they struggle with the continuing legal fallout surrounding the death … 29
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