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The shots that ended a standoff two years ago on the lower South Hill continue to create a wide chasm between how a grieving family and law enforcement investigators view the same evidence. Conflicting witness testimony and the trajectory of the bullets that killed James E. Rogers on Sept. 26, 2011, have convinced the family that Spokane police and Spokane County Sheriff’s investigators failed to fully investigate the fatal shooting, which occurred after a nearly two-hour standoff with police near the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Hatch Street.
Legal experts generally agree Washington state law prohibits opening fire on someone stealing your car. But as the investigation into last week’s fatal shooting of an auto thief in north Spokane continues and prosecutors prepare to decide whether the armed homeowner was justified, it’s clear numerous legal issues are at play.
A golfer who sprained his ankle at Esmeralda Golf Course is getting $215,000 from the city of Spokane plus free golf for the rest of his life, but neither side is talking about the unusual case. The settlement with 72-year-old Stan L. Peterson was approved earlier this week by the Spokane City Council, ending a five-year legal battle that featured gag orders and lost evidence.
Otto Zehm’s death in 2006 polarized the community and sparked calls for reform. The complex legal battle over his death that followed has brought criticism of Spokane city leaders’ handling of the case and even morale problems within police ranks. Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr.’s criminal trial is set to begin Wednesday. “The trust will come back when this case finally gets tried,” said veteran legal observer Tim Trageser, a local defense attorney. “We as citizens have to accept what those 12 jurors decide.”
The Spokane Police Department’s second-in-command believes an officer didn’t follow department policy in the fatal 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm, contradicting his previous statements. That revelation prompted Spokane Mayor Mary Verner to say Tuesday that the city is re-evaluating its legal strategy.
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.