SPOKANE, Wash. - A dark chapter in the Spokane Police Department's history was closed Thursday as former Officer Karl Thompson was sentenced to 51 months in prison for violating Otto Zehm's civil rights and using excessive force during a 2006 confrontation.
After sentencing, the defense team attempted to have Thompson stay free pending an appeal of his sentence. Judge Fred Van Sickle denied the request and ordered that the former police officer, once considered a contender for Spokane police chief, to begin serving his prison sentence. He was handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom.
The chapter began at a North Division Zip Trip in March 2006 with the beating of an innocent man at the hands of Spokane police officers, and ended Thursday with one of those officers involved being sent to prison.
Prosecutors walked into federal court Thursday ready to ask Judge Fred Van Sickle that Thompson serve approximately 9 to 11 years, saying "there is compelling medical evidence in this case" that Zehm suffered severe trauma at the hands of Thompson.
"This case is a question of whether a badge is a license to break the law without impunity," federal prosecutor Victor Boutros said Thursday morning.Thompson nuts and bolts
In two hours and 45 minutes they argued that the sentence proposed by their own probation department was simply too lenient and did not fit the facts of the case.
While the pre-sentencing report concluded Thompson had committed a simple assault, federal prosecutors showed Judge Van Sickle Thompson's baton and autopsy photos to prove that what happened to Zehm was an aggravated assault involving unwarranted blows to his head.
"If not for the rush to strike first and ask questions later, Otto Zehm would still be here today," Boutros said.
Thompson's defense attorney, Carl Oreskovich, asked that his client receive a lesser sentence because Thompson was only trying to control Zehm in the line of his official duties as a Spokane police officer. However prosecutors said that's exactly why Thompson deserves more punishment.
"This is the cost of police officers, who we place in a position of great trust, abusing their authority," Boutros said.
Oreskovich also reminded the court of his client's otherwise exceptional service record with the police department and that Thompson had never been accused of excessive force before.
After Oreskovich spent nearly an hour pleading for leniency for his client, for the first time during the trial and subsequent proceedings, Karl Thompson took the stand and spoke on his own behalf.
In his brief statement, addressed entirely to Zehm's family, Thompson apologized for what happened during the incident that ultimately led to Otto Zehm's death.
"I am deeply sorry to the loss of Mr. Zehm; I know nothing equals the love of our children. I did not intend to harm Mr. Zehm that night. Mr. Zehm will always be a part of me. I live with the events of that night," Thompson said.
"I accept responsibility for my actions. I am deeply sorry for this tragic loss," he added.
The impact of Otto Zehm's death has had a profound impact on the City of Spokane and its police force. At one point, Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez called the Spokane Police Department's handling of the Zehm investigation an "extensive cover up" and a "violent abuse of power."
Federal grand jury documents revealed the four officers involved in the 22 minute altercation with Zehm were given three days before they were asked to write incident reports about their roles in the encounter.
Some say that the case led to the demise of Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who left her post at the beginning of the year, the subsequent national search and hiring of Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub and contributed to Mary Verner's failed re-election bid for mayor.
City attorney Howard Delaney was fired not long after Mayor David Condon got into office; assistant city attorney Rocky Treppiedi was fired by new city attorney Nancy Isserlis in April, a move that came as no surprise as Condon said he would fire Treppiedi as soon as he was elected.
Treppiedi had served Verner as police advisor and vigorously defended the police department in misconduct complaints, including the Zehm case.
In May, mediation between the City of Spokane and Otto Zehm's estate led to a settlement that included a $1.67 Million payment to his estate, enhanced training for Spokane police officers, which the department instituted prior to the settlement, a written apology to Zehm's mother and the dedication of a pavilion at a Spokane park in his memory.
Condon, in a letter to Ann Zehm and her family, wrote in his letter of apology that "since Otto's death the city has committed to instituting procedures to protect citizens like Otto."
In late October a plaque was unveiled and picnic shelter dedicated in Otto's memory at Mission Park. Mission Park was chosen because Otto liked to visit there.
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