Judge denies Thompson request for new trial

Published On: Sep 18 2012 12:22:22 PM PDT   Updated On: Sep 18 2012 09:13:45 PM PDT
Karl Thompson
SPOKANE, Wash. -

A federal judge has denied former Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson's bid for a new trial on charges he denied Otto Zehm his civil rights during a 2006 confrontation.

Judge Fred Van Sickle issued his ruling denying Thompson's request for a new trial Tuesday morning, saying that his right to a fair trial was not deprived.

"The family is encouraged the judge will soon set a date for sentencing," Zehm family attorney Jeffrey Finer said Tuesday afternoon. "There's not been a date on the books for ... it just seems like many, many months and at this point I think the impediments to sentencing are gone and we can move forward on the case and get to the punishment phase."

Thompson's attorneys, however, said they are immediately filing an appeal of Van Sickle's decision with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

He was convicted last November of violating Otto Zehm's civil rights during a March 18, 2006 confrontation at at Zip Trip convenience store on North Division following what turned out later to be an erroneous call that Zehm had been seen somehow tampering with an ATM machine nearby.

Zehm entered the store with Thompson on his heels a few moments later; Thompson began striking Zehm with his baton while Zehm, after a few strikes, fell to the ground. Thompson subsequently fired his Taser at Zehm in an attempt to subdue him.

Zehm stopped breathing and despite medics attempts to resuscitate him he never regained consciousness and died several days later.

Thompson went to trial in federal court on charges he had violated Zehm's civil rights and was found guilty by a jury last November. As Judge Van Sickle did not consider him a flight risk and subsequently he was not taken into custody prior to sentencing..

After Thompson's conviction, defense attorney Carl Oreskovich attacked nearly every aspect of the trial; Judge Van Sickle rejected all the defense claims.

Thompson's best hope of getting a new trial was the allegation that the government cheated in the case by withholding evidence from the defense. Grant Fredericks, the expert hired to interpret what could be seen in the zip trip surveillance video, was at odds with prosecutors about when and where Thompson was hitting Zehm with his baton.

Judge Van Sickle agreed the United States should have told Thompson about Frederick's findings and in his ruling he wrote, "favorable evidence was withheld from him, and the United States withheld it."

However to win a new trial the defense also had to prove withholding that video evidence affected the jury's verdict and Judge Van Sickle doesn't think so. Setting the video aside the judge cited Thompson's own admissions, writing "although he denies intentionally striking Mr. Zehm in the head, he has never denied intentionally and repeatedly striking other part's of Mr. Zehm's body."

The judge feels combined with the testimony of police-practice experts who found Thompson's use of force excessive that "the United States presented substantial evidence in support of its allegations."

"The possibility of a different outcome is not great enough to undermine confidence in the verdicts the jury rendered. To the contrary the verdicts are worthy of the public's confidence," Van Sickle concluded.

Van Sickle previously rejected Thompson's request for an acquittal.

Separately, following mediation the City of Spokane and representatives of Otto Zehm's estate reached a settlement in his death. The family will be paid $1.67 Million, the Spokane police department would go through enhanced training and a pavilion would be named in his memory.

Mayor David Condon also wrote Zehm's mother a public letter of apology, which he hand delivered to Ann Zehm in early June. On Tuesday, Condon said he was glad the case has reached a conclusion.

“Our community has been waiting for this decision for a long time," Condon wrote. "I am glad to see this case reach at least this conclusion, almost a year after the initial jury verdict. We cannot change the past, but as a City, we have acknowledged mistakes in this case, and we’re moving forward for a better future.”