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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Thompson wants trial moved

Attorney cites publicity, political attention

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 it has become a political issue in the city mayoral race.

Carl Oreskovich acknowledged in his filing that the deadline for such motions passed on July 21. He wrote that he had been withholding his request for change of venue to see if attorneys had difficulty finding a jury to hear evidence about Thompson’s fatal confrontation with Otto Zehm.

“Since that (July) date, there has been a marked upsurge of publicity and political attention surrounding this case, including dramatic public reaction to the 22-page declaration of Assistant Chief (Jim) Nicks filed on Aug. 5, 2011,” Oreskovich wrote.

Thompson is charged with using unreasonable force and lying to investigators following the March 18, 2006, confrontation with 36-year-old, schizophrenic Zehm at a Zip Trip. Trial is set to begin Oct. 11.

Thompson was the first officer to respond after Zehm had erroneously been suspected of theft. Thompson entered the store and used a baton to strike Zehm, who was holding a 2-liter soda bottle.

The struggle eventually included six other officers, who hogtied Zehm, placed a plastic mask over his face, and – according to court records – put their weight on Zehm until he stopped breathing. He died two days later.

Assistant Chief Nicks, who this week announced he is retiring early next year, initially told the public that Zehm “lunged” and “attacked” Thompson. But he told federal investigators a different story and is expected to testify that Thompson violated department policy and that his department conducted an incomplete investigation.

The controversy spilled over into the race for mayor as challenger David Condon criticized how incumbent Mayor Mary Verner and other city leaders have handled the situation.

“Due to the recent politicizing and barrage of media coverage,” Oreskovich wrote, “I am compelled to bring a motion to change venue at this time because the coverage has resulted in presumed prejudice making it impossible for Officer Thompson to receive a fair trial in this venue.”

He asked Judge Fred Van Sickle for permission to file a 33-page brief supporting his motion, which will include “excerpts and analyzes a select portion of articles and news broadcasts.”

Oreskovich did not immediately respond to an interview request. Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin said he could not comment about any aspect of the case.