Spokane Police Officer Sentenced for Civil Rights and Obstruction Violations in Connection with In-Custody Death of Otto Zehm
|U.S. Department of Justice November 16, 2012|
WASHINGTON—A federal judge sentenced Spokane, Washington Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. to 51 months in prison, followed by three years’ supervised release, for civil rights and obstruction violations stemming from his March 18, 2006 beating of an unarmed citizen and an extensive cover-up that followed, the Justice Department announced. Following a Taser deployment and a rapid series of baton blows to the head, neck, and body, the victim, the late Otto Zehm, 36, was hogtied, stopped breathing, and was transported to the hospital, where he died two days later. The defendant claimed the beating was justified because he felt threatened by a plastic bottle of soda Zehm was holding.
The evidence at trial established that on the evening of March 18, 2006, Zehm went to a convenience store to buy soda and snacks. Security video showed that the defendant ran into the store, drew his baton and rushed toward Zehm from behind, subsequently delivering two baton blows toward Zehm’s head, knocking him backwards onto the floor. The defendant then stood over Zehm and fired Taser probes into him, also continuing to deliver overhand baton blows, including a final flurry of seven baton strikes in eight seconds, which was captured by the convenience store’s security cameras. The defendant never asked Zehm any questions or even mentioned the ATM (see below). Witnesses testified that Zehm’s last words were, “All I wanted was a Snickers.”
The defendant went to the convenience store after two teenagers reported that a man fitting Zehm’s description had approached a drive-up ATM on foot as they were conducting a transaction, and they felt uncomfortable. After the teenagers pulled away from the ATM, they were unsure whether they had cancelled their transaction. Prior to the defendant’s first strike, dispatchers made clear that the complainants were not sure whether the man at the ATM had taken any of their money. One of the women at the ATM who called 911 that night testified at trial that she was horrified by the defendant’s rapid series of overhand baton blows to Zehm.
The defendant gave his report of the incident on March 22, 2006, after he knew Zehm had died. In his report, the defendant denied hitting Zehm in the head with his baton because that would have constituted deadly force, which he admitted was not justified in this case. However, trial testimony established that the defendant admitted to Spokane Police Officer Timothy Moses on-scene that night that he had struck Zehm in the head and neck with his baton. Witnesses and medical testimony also confirmed that the defendant had delivered baton blows to Zehm’s head and neck.
“The defendant was given considerable power to enforce the law, but instead he abused his authority when he brutally beat an innocent man,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “This prosecution reflects the department’s commitment to prosecuting official misconduct cases, and today’s sentence sends a message that such violent abuse of power will not be tolerated.”
“A large majority of law enforcement officers work courageously every day to make our communities safe,” said Michael Ormsby, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington. “Since those in uniform deserve our respect and support, it is vitally important to prosecute those officers who violate their oaths of office and the public trust placed in them. Our community has learned many lessons from this incident, it is now incumbent upon all of us to apply those lessons to reforms within the police department.”
“This investigation is emblematic of the FBI’s vigorous commitment to the protection of the civil rights that define what it means to be an American,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Carlos Mojica of the FBI Seattle Division. “While the vast majority of law enforcement officers uphold and obey the law, in those rare instances where serious transgressions occur, the FBI will conduct a comprehensive investigation to preserve and restore the public trust that forms the fabric of our society.”
This case was investigated by the FBI’s Spokane Resident Agency and was prosecuted by Trial Attorney Victor Boutros of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Timothy Durkin and Aine Ahmed of the Eastern District of Washington.