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Spokane police officer convicted in fatal beating

November 2, 2011 |  9:08 pm

A former Los Angeles police officer working in Spokane, Wash., was convicted by a federal jury Wednesday of using excessive force in the beating of a mentally ill man who died after being struck with batons, hogtied, shocked and smothered.

The officer, Karl F. Thompson Jr., was convicted of civil rights violations and obstruction charges stemming from what federal authorities called an "extensive cover-up" within the Spokane Police Department after the 2006 incident.

The victim, Otto Zehm, 36, who was developmentally disabled and taking medication for schizophrenia, was accosted by the officer in a convenience store after being suspected, wrongly, of taking money from a nearby ATM.

He had just picked up a soda bottle when Thompson rushed up to him and unleashed a hail of blows with a baton, federal prosecutors said.

Zehm's last words, witnesses testified, were,"All I wanted was a Snickers." 

The trial was held in Yakima to avoid the tumultuous publicity that has rocked the Police Department, where Thompson was once considered a potential candidate to become police chief.

"The defendant was given considerable power to enforce the law, but instead he abused his authority when he brutally beat an innocent man," Thomas E. Perez, assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement after the verdict.

Prosecutors said Thompson was acting on a vague report from some teenagers who had seen Zehm behaving in an odd manner at a nearby ATM. They said they weren't sure whether any money had been taken. It turned out Zehm was probably trying to figure out how to cash his paycheck, which was found in his pocket.

Security video from the convenience store introduced at trial showed Thompson running into the store and drawing his baton as he ran at Zehm from behind. Witnesses testified that Zehm appeared to be unaware that anyone was approaching him as he picked up the soda to purchase.

Less than 2.5 seconds after Zehm turned to see Thompson running toward him, the police officer delivered two baton blows to his head, knocking him backward to the floor, according to the prosecution and witness testimony.

"Witnesses testified that Thompson then stood over the victim and fired Taser probes down into [his] chest as he was in the fetal position on the floor beneath him," the prosecution said in a statement. "The victim never returned to his feet, but Thompson continued to deliver overhand baton blows, including a final flurry of seven baton strikes in eight seconds."

Several other officers arrived as backup, and Zehm was hogtied on the floor, his face covered by a plastic mask, purportedly to keep him from spitting at the officers, according to court documents. Within minutes, he stopped breathing. He was revived and hospitalized but never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead two days later. The cause of death was lack of oxygen to his brain.

Thompson, 64, testified that he had considered the soda bottle in Zehm's hand a potential weapon, and that he beat and shocked him in a difficult attempt to subdue him before he could rise and threaten police officers.

"I gave him commands. They were quick, but he gave me quick responses," Thompson testified, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review. "It was 'Why' [did I want him to drop the soda bottle] and 'No.' "

"It was a profound tragedy for his family, his friends, for me," Thompson testified.

The officer worked for the Los Angeles Police Department from 1969 into the 1970s, prosecutors said, when, like many ex-Los Angeles police officers, he moved to northern Idaho. He joined the Spokane department's patrol division in 1997.

Thompson was never charged with killing Zehm. Instead, he was charged under federal civil rights laws. The jury convicted him of violating Zehm's civil rights by using excessive force and of making a false statement. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine, but prosecutors are likely to seek less time.

Thompson's attorney, Carl Oreskovich, told the Spokesman-Review after the verdict, "This is not over."

"I am surprised and stunned by the outcome of this case," he said. "We believe Officer Thompson is an innocent man. We are going to keep fighting for him. This is a devastating day for him and us."

Zehm's cousin, Dale Zehm, told reporters in Spokane that the family was "relieved and grateful" after  the verdict. 

"The family is relieved that the system worked and that Otto's death was not ignored," he said. "We now hope for ... real healing in the community and a change in ... how officers are trained and supervised, [so] that each officer knows that people like Otto deserve respect and protection of the laws."


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-- Kim Murphy in Seattle

Photo: Karl Thompson emerges from the federal courthouse in Yakima, Wash., where he was convicted of civil rights violations and making a false statement. Credit: Christopher Anderson/Spokane Spokesman-Review/Associated Press