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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Jan. 12, 2013 in City on Page B1 Former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr.’s attorneys argued Friday that Thompson shouldn’t have to pay restitution stemming from his criminal conviction for using excessive force against Otto Zehm. … 29
Thompson argues against Zehm restitution
Jan. 11, 2013 in City Former Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr.’s attorneys argued today that a judge should not force Thompson to pay any restitution stemming from his criminal conviction for using excessive … 64
Police face reorganization
Dec. 22, 2012 in City on Page B1 The Spokane Police Department, hoping to restore public confidence, will embark on a major reorganization next month designed to make existing resources more efficient at achieving the ultimate goal of … 15
Organizational shakeup coming for Spokane police
Dec. 21, 2012 in City The Spokane Police Department, hoping to restore public confidence and rebuild its tarnished image, will embark on a major reorganization next month that’s intended to give the agency greater crime-fighting … 49
Use of force panel offers 26 recommendations to improve police department
Dec. 21, 2012 in City on Page A5 A yearlong review of the Spokane Police Department found a professional organization committed to public service but lacking in identity and needing improvements in how it investigates its own officers. … 32
Commission seeks list of changes for SPD
Dec. 20, 2012 in City The long-awaited draft report by the independent City of Spokane Use of Force Commission was released today and it calls the Spokane Police Department to change how it polices itself … 24
Clark: Justice finally served in Thompson case
Nov. 18, 2012 in City on Page B1 It’s a good day, Spokane. There’s no snow in the potholes, the river’s still running and Karl Thompson Jr. is already ensconced in a federal lockup on the other side … 83
Thompson being held in federal center in Seattle
Nov. 17, 2012 in City on Page B1 Former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. is in a federal detention center south of Seattle, at least temporarily. The Federal Bureau of Prisons doesn’t yet have Thompson in … 46
Thompson now in Seattle federal detention
Thompson gets 51 months in prison
Nov. 16, 2012 in City on Page A1 After being handed a sentence Thursday of more than four years in federal prison – the culmination of six years of investigations, legal action and community soul-searching – former Spokane … 79
Thompson sentenced to 4 years in prison
Doug Clark: Justice for Zehm may finally come today
Nov. 15, 2012 in City on Page A5 The sentencing of Karl Thompson Jr. will supposedly take place in a Spokane federal courtroom this morning, proving I had it all wrong. Apparently, there is a limit on how … 46
Follow Karl Thompson’s sentencing on Twitter
Nov. 14, 2012 in City Check here for Twitter updates on the sentencing of Karl F. Thompson Jr., the Spokane police officer who was convicted last year of lying to investigators and using excessive force … 3
Thompson sentencing in Otto Zehm case set for Thursday
Nov. 14, 2012 in City on Page A5 After living free for a year as attorneys argued for a new trial, former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. will learn his punishment for using excessive force and … 103
Thompson divorce under feds’ scrutiny
Nov. 3, 2012 in City on Page B1 The divorce that enabled former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. to charge taxpayers more than half a million dollars for his legal defense against excessive force charges is … 53
Vestal: Nothing is clear-cut in Thompson sentencing
Zehm plaque placed at Mission Park in ceremony on his birthday