Wash. officer convicted of excessive force
A mentally ill man who died in 2006 was at the center of the case
By Shannon Dininny and Nicholas K. Geranios
YAKIMA, Wash. — A federal jury on Wednesday convicted a Spokane officer of using excessive force on a mentally ill man who died in 2006 after being beaten and restrained at a convenience store, in a case that brought criticism to the city's police force.
Officer Karl Thompson was accused of brutally beating Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old schizophrenic, and then lying about it to investigators. Zehm died from his injuries two days after the encounter.
Thompson showed no reaction as the verdict was read. One of his lawyers, Carl Oreskovich, called the decision devastating and vowed to appeal.
"We think we represented an innocent man," Oreskovich said. "This is not over."
U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby said the case had to be brought because there were too many questions about what exactly happened the night Zehm died. But he cautioned against seeing the charges as an "indictment of our entire police department."
"This case is about a single police officer and what he did on one evening in one situation," Ormsby said in Spokane.
Zehm was the subject of a police search after two teenagers reported he might have stolen money at an ATM, though it was later revealed he did nothing wrong.
Thompson was the first officer to respond and found Zehm entering a convenience store on March 18, 2006. Surveillance video showed Thompson rushing up to Zehm, knocking him to the ground and repeatedly striking him with a police baton.
Thompson has more than 40 years of law enforcement experience.
According to police, officers later hogtied and sat on Zehm, who died without regaining consciousness.
A medical examiner concluded Zehm died from lack of oxygen to the brain due to heart failure while being restrained on his stomach.
His death exposed many raw nerves in Spokane, an eastern Washington city of about 200,000, and brought widespread criticism of its police force. The trial was moved to Yakima due to publicity.
Prosecutors argued Thompson, 64, disgraced his badge with his actions, while the defense maintained the veteran officer used his training and experience to make a split-second decision to protect himself and the public.
Thompson was not charged with killing Zehm; he was instead found guilty of violating Zehm's civil rights by using excessive force, and of making a false statement.
Thompson faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the first count and up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the false statement count.
No sentencing date was set, and Ormsby declined to say how much time his office would request. He also declined to say if there was an ongoing investigation and whether any additional officers would be indicted.
Prosecutors asked that Thompson be immediately taken into custody, but Van Sickle rejected the request and sent the issue back to a federal magistrate in Spokane.
The jurors declined to comment to reporters upon leaving the federal courthouse in Yakima.
Liz Moore, of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, hailed the verdict but said more changes are needed in the Spokane Police Department.
"It's a shame it took several investigations over five years for anybody to be held accountable over Otto Zehm's death," she said.
At a news conference in Spokane, Otto Zehm's cousin Dale Zehm said he was grateful to the FBI and the Justice Department for pursuing the case.
"This is a very good day for the city of Spokane," Dale Zehm said. "The family is relieved."
Still pending is a lawsuit filed against Thompson by the estate of Otto Zehm.
Breean Beggs, an attorney for the Zehm estate, said that case was on hold pending the criminal trial's outcome but now would resume. He said a jury trial wasn't likely for 18 months or so.
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