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
Zehm to blame for fight with officers, city says
City asks to dismiss Zehm case
June 19, 2009 in City, News 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
Otto Zehm case at crossroads
March 1, 2009 in City on Page B1 On the eve of the third anniversary of the police-encounter death of Otto Zehm, a civil rights suit against the city of Spokane and its Police Department could be filed …
Zehm case may soon see legal action
Defense funds OK’d in case Zehm suit filed
Oct. 21, 2008 in City on Page B1 The Spokane City Council on Monday voted unanimously to pay as much as $45,000 to a local attorney to defend the city against a possible lawsuit stemming from the death …
Police powers in spotlight
May 14, 2008 in City on Page A1 It sounds like a typical play rehearsal at first. “OK, places,” calls Brooke Kiener, a theater instructor at Whitworth University. “Let’s go, guys. Focus.” But Kiener’s students are preparing an …
Verner says city can’t afford full-time ombudsman
Few answers in Otto Zehm’s death
Attorney, law center join up
Nov. 14, 2007 in City on Page A1 It was a lawyer’s peak moment: arguing a case before the U.S. Supreme Court. But Spokane attorney Jeffry Finer was pretty sure he’d lost in 1996 when Chief Justice William …
Police oversight a campaign issue
Aug. 5, 2007 in City on Page B1 In most elections, candidates for office in the city of Spokane face a basic question about police: Are there enough of them to do the job? Candidates might argue yes …
Attorney for Zehm estate files claim against city
July 25, 2007 in City on Page B2 An attorney representing the estate of Otto Zehm, the mentally disabled janitor who died last year after he was Tasered, beaten and bound by Spokane police officers, has filed a …
Deaths of disabled discussed
June 22, 2007 in City on Page B2 Civil rights advocates sat down with Spokane County’s highest-ranking law enforcement officials Wednesday night to discuss recent fatal confrontations between police and persons with disabilities. The public forum at Gonzaga …
Zehm, Yohe catalysts for forum
June 17, 2007 in City on Page B2 A mentally disabled man buying a candy bar dies last year after a struggle with police. A meth addict with epilepsy confronted by sheriff’s deputies on May 1 while possibly …
Tucker won’t push coroner inquests
April 9, 2007 in City on Page A8 Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker still believes coroner inquests would effectively get information out to the public whenever police officers, jailers or deputies kill someone in their custody. But he …