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
By content type
Latest updates in this topic
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 …
Dual legal role is under scrutiny
June 24, 2009 in City on Page A1 Spokane’s City Council president called Tuesday for a new look at a lawyer’s dual role in the Otto Zehm case. Carl Oreskovich is handling the case from two angles: He’s … 6
Shogan questions lawyer’s dual role in Zehm case
Feds indict Zehm officer
June 23, 2009 in City on Page A1 A Spokane police officer should stand trial on charges of violating the civil rights of mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm and lying about the confrontation that resulted in Zehm’s death, … 3
Officials defend police response
June 23, 2009 in City on Page A10 Spokane leaders Monday continued to defend police actions during the 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm, despite a federal indictment of one of the officers involved in the incident. They qualifed … 4
Doug Clark: Glimpse of justice rises from great travesty
Spokane leaders stick by accused officer
June 22, 2009 in City Spokane leaders on Monday continued to defend police actions during the 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm, despite a federal indictment of one of the officers involved in the incident. 2
Feds indict Zehm officer
June 22, 2009 in City A Spokane Police officer should stand trial for violating the civil rights of mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm and for lying to cover up his actions during a confrontation that … 30
Zehm to blame for fight with officers, city says
City asks to dismiss Zehm case
June 19, 2009 in City The city of Spokane asked a federal court to dismiss the lawsuit over the death of Otto Zehm, a developmentally disabled janitor who died while in police custody. Attorneys for … 8
City approves $200,000 for defense in Zehm case
Lawsuit filed in Otto Zehm death
March 14, 2009 in City on Page B1 A federal civil rights suit against the city of Spokane and nine of its police officers says Otto Zehm died three years ago when police officers used batons and Tasers … 1
City sued over Otto Zehm death
Police ombudsman search thins field to 9
Otto campaign pushes plenty of buttons in community
As we wait for justice, we can remember
March 3, 2009 in City on Page A5 March Madness has arrived, and I don’t mean basketball. I’m referring to my mood as we approach the third anniversary of one of Spokane’s more shameful and frustrating episodes. 5