crimesider

Spokane police officer jailed in beating death of disabled janitor

Former Spokane, Wash. police officer Karl Thompson, center, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012.
KREM
(CBS/AP) SPOKANE, Wash. - A Spokane police officer was sentenced to more than four years in prison for using excessive force against a mentally disabled janitor who died after being mistakenly suspected of stealing money from an ATM.

Spokane officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., 65, was sentenced Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle in the 2006 beating death of Otto Zehm, 36.

Van Sickle said he hoped the sentence would begin to bring closure to Zehm's family and to the community, which has been at odds with the city's police department as a result of this case and others. Van Sickle also ordered that Thompson be taken into custody immediately, over the objections of defense lawyers, who wanted him to remain free while the verdict is appealed.

Thompson 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.

Six years ago, Zehm was beaten and targeted with a stun gun by Thompson in a convenience store. He was hog-tied and sat on by other officers until he passed out. He died two days later without regaining consciousness.

Zehm had committed no crime.

Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich argued for a sentence of zero to 16 months, saying there was no evidence presented that the actions of Thompson led directly to Zehm's death.

Prosecutors sought a sentence of up to 11 years because of the seriousness of the attack on Zehm, and its impact on the community.

"When officers abuse their power and lie to cover it up, it fundamentally undermines" their position of trust in the community, said Victor Boutros, a Justice Department attorney who

helped prosecute the case.

On March 18, 2006, police received a report that a man matching Zehm's description might have stolen money from people at an ATM. Surveillance video showed that 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. It was later determined that he had not committed any crime.

His last words were: "All I wanted was a Snickers bar," according to trial testimony.

Anger boiled in the community over the death, but the Spokane County prosecutor's office declined to bring charges against any officers. Amid 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.

  • Barry Leibowitz

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