The alternate juror who claimed last year’s trial of former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. was marred by jury misconduct was unable to provide any specific examples of impropriety during a rare judicial inquiry into the allegations, new court documents show.
Transcripts of the secret proceedings, unsealed Thursday following a legal challenge by The Spokesman-Review, show that the alternate juror spoke only in vague generalities about behavior he felt might have been inappropriate and that other jurors questioned by U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle disputed any suggestion of impropriety. Names of the jurors questioned as part of the inquiry into the conviction of Thompson for excessive force in the fatal confrontation with Otto Zehm were redacted from the documents.
“I thought the government put up a terrible case. Horrible,” the alternate juror said during the hearing. “I thought they got it wrong.”
But when he was pushed by the judge and others to provide specific instances of impropriety, the alternate continued to respond in generalities.
“They were saying, you know, this is what this guy’s doing, this is what they’re arguing about … and they were talking about all this stuff,” the alternate juror said. “And I was thinking, hey, shut up. You’re not supposed to talk about none of this stuff. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific because I actually tuned it out.”
Van Sickle called for the secret hearings in May after attorneys learned that the alternate told a court security officer that jurors improperly discussed the case prior to deliberations that resulted in the Nov. 2 conviction.
Thompson has yet to be sentenced for using excessive force and lying to investigators following the March 18, 2006, confrontation with Zehm in a Spokane convenience store.
The case took more than five years to get to trial, which Van Sickle moved to Yakima, citing intense media coverage in Spokane.
Following the conviction, Oreskovich has filed several motions seeking a new trial, including allegations that jurors improperly watched television during the trial.
At the May 16 hearing, the alternate juror said another juror admitted that he watched television coverage of the trial and that several jurors, whom he named, talked about several aspects of the case.
But the alternate juror could not remember any specific comments made by other jury members indicating they had decided the case prior to deliberations, from which he was excluded.
“Human beings get together, and they start talking, and pretty soon everybody’s got an opinion,” the court transcript quotes him as saying, “and pretty soon you’re all talking about it, and you’re not supposed to.”
Following the private interview of the alternate juror, Van Sickle then called for a second hearing May 23 where three of the jurors mentioned by the alternate – including forewoman Diane Riley – were questioned.
The jurors were taken into the judge’s chambers, where he allowed one federal prosecutor, Oreskovich and Thompson to remain. The jurors were then asked about their jury service in Thompson’s presence.
At one point during the questioning, Riley started crying and asked Van Sickle if she needed an attorney.
“This is not a usual proceeding. I can tell you that,” Van Sickle told Riley. “I’ve been a judge for 35 years, and this is the first time it’s ever occurred in any case I have. But it is important, and I feel the responsibility to do it.”
He later thanked Riley for coming in.
“It certainly was not my intent and is not my intent to embarrass you or anybody else,” the judge said.
Breean Beggs, who along with Jeffry Finer represents Zehm’s mother and estate, said he understands the legal reasons that Van Sickle allowed Thompson into the hearings, but said it must have been awkward for the jurors.
“As agonizing as it would be for jurors to be questioned in front of Thompson, we trust that the system will work as it was intended … and their verdict will be upheld,” he said.
None of the jurors, including Riley, said they used outside influences or came to any conclusions prior to deliberations. While the jurors talked to each other during the trial, they focused most conversations about other topics.
“Seldom did we talk about the actual things that were going on in the court” she said. “I think it’s human nature … if you have a witness that behaved or responded in certain ways, you go, wow, what was that all about? The one I can remember … is (Officer Tim) Moses. He was just so aggressive and angry that it, it befuddled all of us.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.