A former Spokane Police Officer, accused of beating a mentally challenged man to death more than 6 years ago, has been sentenced to four years in prison.
On March 18, 2006 at approximately 8:25 PM, Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old mentally challenged janitor, walked into a Spokane, Washington gas station to buy a candy bar. Around the same time, police received a 911 call from two women. The women told police a white male with long blond hair, wearing a black jacket, jeans and boots, approached their car while they were at a drive-up ATM machine. The women believed the man was trying to get into their car, became frightened, and drove away. As they were leaving, they saw the man walk over to the ATM. As he walked away from the ATM, they report seeing a "receipt" in his hand and a "large wad" of what they believed to be money from the woman's bank account.
Officers were sent to the scene and spotted a man matching the description the women had given. According to the police radio recording, the suspect began fighting with Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., the first officer to arrive on the scene. A video of the incident shows a different story however.
The store's surveillance video shows Zehm walking into the store, with Officer Thompson following moments later. Thompson approaches Zehm with his police baton in hand. Zehm turns and attempts to flee down a store aisle. Thompson strikes Zehm with the baton and Zehm falls to the ground. Thompson can be seen standing over Zehm, striking him multiple times.
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Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr.
Approximately 16 minutes after the confrontation began, Zehm stopped breathing. Paramedics arrived, administered CPR and rushed Zehm to the hospital. Zehm remained in a coma for two days before being pronounced dead.
It was later learned that Zehm had committed no crime.
The residents of Spokane were outraged over the incident, but the District Attorney's office refused to bring charges against Thompson. Thompson was a Vietnam veteran and a decorated 40-year law enforcement veteran. He served as a police officer in Los Angeles and northern Idaho before joining the Spokane Police Department. Amid continued demands for a trial, federal prosecutors eventually charged Thompson with violating Zehm's civil rights through use of excessive force and then lying to investigators.
In October 2011, five-and-a-half years after Zehm's death, Thompson was tried and convicted of excessive force and lying to investigators following Zehm's death. On November 14th, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge, Fred Van Sickle, sentenced Thompson to 4 years and 3 months in prison.
During the trial, Thompson apologized to Zehm's mother and told her he did not act out of malice or with the intent to harm her son.
Assistant U.S. attorney Tim Durkin told the court:
"There were seven baton strikes in less than eight seconds. There is compelling medical evidence in this case that Mr. Zehm sustained serious bodily injury. When officers abuse their power and lie to cover it up, it fundamentally undermines their position of trust in the community."
Durkin also noted that Thompson also tasered Zehm, and allowed other officers to hogtie him and placed a rubber mask over his mouth.
Thompson's defense attorney, Carl Oreskovich, has stated he plans to appeal the sentence.
Victor Boutros, a U.S. Department of Justice Trial Attorney said:
"With his dying words, he (Zehm) never understood why the defendant had beat him. He said 'All I wanted was a Snickers bar.'"