SPOKANE — Defense lawyers say a former Spokane police officer should not spend any time in prison for using excessive force against a mentally disabled janitor who died after being arrested on suspicion of stealing money from an ATM.
Public humiliation and the loss of his career are punishment enough for Karl F. Thompson Jr., his attorneys say.
Federal prosecutors counter that Thompson should get 10 years in prison for his treatment of 36-year-old Otto Zehm more than six years ago.
They argued in court documents that Thompson has failed to accept responsibility for his actions and for “the adverse impact he has had on the community’s view of other outstanding, hardworking, and honest law enforcement officers.”
Thompson, 65, was convicted last year by a federal jury of violating Zehm’s civil rights by using excessive force and then lying to investigators in the case that shook public confidence in the Spokane Police Department.
He is expected to be sentenced today by U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle.
A pre-sentencing report by court staff members recommended that Thompson, a Vietnam veteran and 40-year police officer, be given at least 27 months behind bars.
Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich disagreed, writing in court documents that Thompson “is a man of truly outstanding character whose convictions are an aberration when compared to a lifetime of earnest dedication to law enforcement.”
On March 18, 2006, police received a report that a man matching Zehm’s description might have stolen money from an ATM. Surveillance video showed Thompson found Zehm inside a convenience store and immediately struck him repeatedly with a baton and shocked him with a stun gun.
Other officers arrived and hogtied Zehm, put a rubber mask over his mouth, and sat on him. Zehm passed out and died two days later without regaining consciousness. It was later determined that he had not committed the crime.
His last words were: “All I wanted was a Snickers bar,” according to trial testimony.
Anger boiled in the community about the death of Zehm, but the Spokane County prosecutor’s office declined to bring charges against any officers.
Amid continuing demands for justice, federal prosecutors eventually charged Thompson with violating Zehm’s civil rights through use of excessive force and then lying to investigators.
Prosecutors also alleged the case involved an extensive cover-up by police. That investigation is ongoing.
The trial was held last year in Yakima due to excessive publicity in Spokane. The judge allowed Thompson to remain free after the conviction, a decision that also brought criticism from the community.
Thompson’s lawyers have said they plan to appeal his conviction.
Fallout from the case has been far-reaching. It was a factor in the recent defeat of Mayor Mary Verner and the resignation of police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. There also have been widespread calls for police reform.
A lawsuit filed against the city was settled with a payment of $1.6 million to the Zehm family. The settlement included new training for police, a letter of apology to Zehm’s mother, and the naming of a park pavilion in memory of Zehm.