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Jury Convicts Spokane Police Officer Of Federal Crimes Related To Otto Zehm's Restraint Death
by Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
November 2, 2011

SPOKANE, WASHINGTON--A jury on Wednesday found Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson guilty of federal crimes related to the 2006 restraint death of Otto Carl Zehm.

The jury convicted Thompson of violating Zehm's civil rights by unnecessarily using lethal force, then lying to investigators to cover up the crime. He could receive a sentence of up to 10 years in prison on the civil rights violation and up to 20 years in prison for the obstruction charge.

The verdict brought about mixed emotions from people with disabilities, advocates and the general public I spoke and corresponded with. Most expressed shock because they had expected Thompson to be acquitted of one or both of the charges.

One colleague wrote to me that -- while, at the very least, the convictions get Thompson off the streets -- it's difficult to feel good about any of this whole ordeal, considering Zehm's death, and the loss to his family, his coworkers, and his community.

Zehm's death, and other recent deaths of innocent people at the hands of police and sheriff's deputies, have created another casualty: The public's trust of law enforcement and public officials in the Spokane area. While authorities described Zehm's behavior minutes before he died as 'bizarre', some people have described the behavior of local authorities following the incident as 'bizarre', especially what appeared as attempts to blame the victim for his own death.

The City's handling of the incident has also partially framed our current mayoral race.

The 36-year-old Zehm, who had schizophrenia and an intellectual disability, died at Spokane's Deaconess Medical Center on March 20, 2006.

Two evenings earlier, dispatchers received a 9-1-1 call of a man acting "in a bizarre manner" at an ATM at Washington Trust Bank near the corner of Indiana Avenue and Division Street. The call was made by two young women who had been in the middle of a transaction when they saw Zehm approach. They left the machine -- without canceling or finishing the transaction -- and watched from a distance, as Zehm walked up to use the machine for his own transaction.

Pictures from the ATM machine show Zehm expressing frustration with the machine, then walking away.

As the two women continued to speak with 9-1-1 dispatchers, police spotted Zehm going into a nearby Zip Trip convenience store. Video from security videos showed Zehm coming into the store and walking directly to the built-in beverage coolers, taking out a plastic bottle of soda pop, and holding each end as he turned around toward a candy display. Thompson is seen coming up to Zehm from behind, confronting him, striking him with a nightstick, and knocking him to the floor.

Within minutes, as many as six other officers joined in, restraining Zehm facedown on the floor, handcuffing and hogtying him, and shocking him repeatedly with Taser stun guns.

At some point, officers obtained from emergency workers a clear plastic mask with a nickel-sized hole in it and placed it over Zehm's face to prevent him from spitting. After Zehm was restrained on his stomach for about 15 minutes, officers discovered that he had stopped breathing. An ambulance took him to the hospital, where he was listed in critical condition until he died.

Thompson told investigators that he felt Zehm was going to use the bottle as a weapon. He also stated that he told Zehm repeatedly to drop the bottle before he struck him with the baton, and that he did not strike Zehm in the head. Autopsy and video evidence, along with testimony presented at the trial, contradicted Thompson's statements.

The night of the incident, eyewitness Kristina Turner told KXLY that Zehm was not resisting arrest, but seemed to just be buying a Pepsi.

"The cop told him to drop the soda, and he turned a little bit, and the cop hit him right in the head with a billy stick," Turner said. "The cop kept beating him in the face, on the knees, and the ribs, punching him with the fists in the face. Then they Tasered him."

"The cop continued to beat him. He was just laying there," Turner went on. "He could have easily arrested him the first time he hit him. Easily. And the guy wasn't even resisting arrest, he was just trying to protect his face."

Zehm's last words: "All I wanted was a Snickers."

His uncashed paycheck was found in his pocket.

After Spokane County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken ruled that Zehm died from a heart attack "while restrained in a prone position for excited delirium", a condition that is common with methamphetamine users, acting Chief of Police Jim Nicks told reporters that no illegal or legal drugs were found in Zehm's system, not even the medication that was prescribed for his schizophrenia. Nicks suggested that if Zehm had taken his medication, he might not have acted "in a bizarre manner" at the ATM.

A few weeks after Zehm's death, Spokane County Sheriff's deputies investigating the incident requested a warrant for Zehm's medical and mental health records, and his employment records at Skils'kin, a employment program for people with intellectual disabilities. The detectives said they needed the information to follow up on the officers' claims that Zehm assaulted them. Some legal experts said that it was highly unusual for investigators to probe the past of a dead person who could not be charged with a crime.

Later, Thompson's attorney asked a federal judge to order the State of Washington to turn over Zehm's medical records from a stay at Eastern State Hospital in 2000. That request was denied.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin commented that Thompson's attorney was on a legal fishing expedition, "so he can show that excited delirium is why Officer Thompson had to use the unreasonable use of force. It's clearly not admissible."

The city was also criticized for, among other things, refusing to release the security videos to the public until after local media pushed the court to order the release. The images in the videos clearly contradicted much of what the Spokane Police Department had told the public about the incident, and were likely key elements in Thompson's conviction.

The Zip Trip convenience store is located less than a mile from where a Spokane Police officer shot and killed 15-year-old Michael Eagle in September 2003. The 9th grade student from the Idaho School for Deaf and Blind failed to drop a BB gun when Officer Michele Madsen directed him to do so.

Earlier this week, a local television station reported that over the past two weeks the Spokane Police Department and Spokane Fire Department had been doing joint training exercises -- including with full riot gear -- to prepare for possible violence in the streets of Spokane following Thompson's verdict. Officials said they wanted to be prepared in case of a response like that in Los Angeles, California in 1992 after police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King, Jr.

Thompson's convictions close one chapter in the story of Otto Zehm's death.

They now open the door for Zehm's family to move forward with their civil suit against Thompson, the City of Spokane, and several other officers.

Police Officer Convicted of Civil Rights and Obstruction Violations in Connection with Beating Otto Zehm (U.S. Department of Justice)
Otto Zehm: Spokane Man Died After Scuffle With Police (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)

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