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Federal court hears Zehm case beginning Monday

Spokane Police Department’s credibility on trial, some think

A trial that starts Monday in federal court is as much about the credibility of the Spokane Police Department as it is the officer charged with using excessive force and lying to investigators, some in Spokane’s legal community say.

City detectives found no wrongdoing by fellow Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. and told Spokane County prosecutors that they could find no evidence that he used excessive force when he beat Otto Zehm with a police baton and shocked him with a Taser on March 18, 2006. Other officers joined the struggle and Zehm eventually was hogtied for about 17 minutes, a plastic mask with a dime-size breathing hole on his face, before he stopped breathing.

After Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker reviewed the case and took no action, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began a probe. Last year a federal grand jury indicted Thompson, who faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

“It’s really a bit frightening that something so obvious took so long to come to light. And it only came to light when a third party had to take an interest,” Spokane defense attorney Tim Trageser said. “I don’t know if the community is ever going to be at the point where they take on faith anything the department says.”

But Police Guild President Ernie Wuthrich disagrees, saying he doesn’t see public outcry for change.

“I’m still of the opinion that Karl Thompson will be acquitted and everyone involved in the investigation did the best job they could and did their jobs professionally,” said Wuthrich, a Spokane police detective. “If people were truly upset, you would have hundreds of people coming to City Council and demanding a public meeting. I think the majority of the community is satisfied with the actions of the police department and the city in general.”

According to federal prosecutors, Spokane police detectives omitted statements from witnesses who saw Thompson confront Zehm; discredited another witness as having an anti-law enforcement bias; and failed to turn over a report from the local ambulance service indicating that Thompson said he hit Zehm in the head with his baton, which would constitute unjustified lethal force.

Court transcripts say officers reviewed the surveillance tape from the North Division Zip Trip on the night of the incident, which showed that Zehm did not lunge at or attack Thompson. Yet, Assistant Chief Jim Nicks said that night and maintained for four months that Zehm was the aggressor.

The 36-year-old janitor, who had paranoid schizophrenia, was erroneously accused of stealing money from a nearby cash machine. He died two days after his confrontation with police.

More than four years later, a federal grand jury continues to take testimony that could lead to charges against one or more officers for conspiracy to obstruct the Zehm investigation.

And even if the jury acquits Thompson after the trial, which is expected to last a month, the public deserves answers from city officials about their handling of the investigation, several local attorneys said.

Spokane attorney David Partovi said it sometimes appears that officers care more about covering for their co-workers than seeking the truth. Partovi represented Shonto Pete in a case involving former Spokane police Officer Jay Olsen; Pete was acquitted in a car-theft case that preceded the 2009 acquittal of Olsen for shooting Pete in the head during the same 2007 incident.

“I think everyone understands why they … cover for their buddies,” Partovi said. “But for the people who are supposed to catch criminals … then cover up by committing crimes, it’s just so hideous and so bad that people really get upset and I think they should.”

Partovi noted that he saw no such activity in the Olsen investigation. “I think the majority of our cops are solid,” he added. “I just wish they would hold each other accountable and the public would hold them accountable and the courts would hold them accountable.”

Wuthrich said officers’ top-most concern is their duty. “The primary goal is to make sure we do our jobs and investigate things thoroughly … and that we are looking at both sides of the issue,” Wuthrich said. “The support for Officer Thompson is secondary … once we determined that he did his job.”

Officer Kevin King last year started a “We Support Karl Thompson” site on Facebook. As of Friday, some 409 people had indicated their support for Thompson, many also buying $10 blue wristbands to help defray Thompson’s out-of-pocket legal costs.

Thompson “has become a media scapegoat, wrongly accused, and wrongly charged,” according to King’s posting.

Chief Anne Kirkpatrick declined comment until after the trial. Mayor Mary Verner did not return a phone call Friday seeking comment.

Carl Oreskovich, who is representing Thompson at taxpayer expense, also could not be reached for comment.

James Sweetser, who served as Spokane County prosecutor for four years before he lost the 1999 election to Tucker, said the public understands when officers make mistakes.

But officers “have to perform their jobs with the highest integrity. Those are hard duties sometimes to distinguish in the moment in the field,” Sweetser said. “This case is not just about Otto Zehm. It’s about every citizen who gets in that situation.”

Through either conviction or acquittal – or settlement of the $2.9 million civil suit against Thompson and other officers – the city needs to get past the Zehm case, Sweetser said.

“Maybe we need a large verdict for the police department to realize they are responsible for mistakes officers make,” he said. “That’s the beauty of our jury system. You usually can’t fool 12 people.”

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