The Indictment

Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson, Jr., is indicted on two federal felony counts in the Otto Zehm case.

After nearly two years of deliberations, a federal grand jury has indicted Spokane Police office Karl Thompson on two felony charges in connection with the March 18, 2006, violent encounter that resulted in the death of Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old Spokane janitor who had a history of struggles with mental illness.

The indictment was announced Monday afternoon by Jim McDevitt, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington. McDevitt said the grand jury reached its decision last Friday, and that the case is being prosecuted by Timothy Durkin, an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Washington, and Victor Boutros, a trial attorney with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington, U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt at Monday's press conferenceD.C.

McDevitt said he expects Thompson to be arraigned within the next week. The civil rights charge carries with it a maximum penalty of ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The falsification of records charge is more punitive, with a maximum sentence of twenty years along with a $250,000 fine upon conviction.

“Law enforcement officers are entrusted with important power and authority,” McDevitt said. “With that authority comes the responsibility not to abuse essential constitutional rights of those they serve.”

McDevitt also explained the reason for the federal interest and investigation of the Zehm case. While deference is typically given to local prosecutions, he said, “where there is no local action, or where the results of the state or local proceeding are insufficient to vindicate federal interests, a federal prosecution may be brought.”  McDevitt, however, refused to comment on how and why the FBI investigation of the incident led to indictments, whereas County Prosector Steve Tucker did not see evidence to file criminal charges in the case.

“The FBI spent hundreds if not thousands of hours poring over the evidence. These are the best law enforcement minds out there, and they determined that there is evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that officer Thompson had violated Otto’s rights.”–CFJ Chief Catalyst Breean Beggs.

The first count of the indictment charges Thompson with a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 242, deprivation of rights under color of law. It accuses Thompson of “repeatedly” striking Zehm with a baton and tasering him, resulting in bodily harm. The count alleges that the violent attack “willfully deprived Otto Zehm of a right preserved and protected by the Constitution of the United States, namely, the right to be free from the unreasonable use of force by one acting under color of law.”

The second count goes to what the grand jury obviously saw as an effort to cover up the unlawful violent arrest. It charges Thompson with a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1519 which makes it a federal crime to destroy, alter, or falsify records with the intent to “impede, obstruct, or influence” the investigation of matters under federal jurisdiction.

McDevitt was adamant from the start of the press conference that he wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the investigation and the evidence brought before the grand jury. And although he specifically refused Otto Zehmcomment when asked to elaborate on the alleged false statements,  the indictment itself reports that on or about March 22nd Thompson made “a false statement in an interview” and then reviewed and signed a transcript of the interview on 3/27/06. The reference is to a lengthy interview of Thompson by an investigating Spokane Police Department detective.

The Center for Justice represents the Zehm family in a civil suit that was filed against the City of Spokane in March. The suit alleges that Zehm’s civil rights were violated because of the unlawful use of deadly force in apprehending him, and in the city’s subsequent actions to “falsely portray” Zehm as the aggressor in the encounter.

Today’s announcement by the U.S. Attorney came just 78 hours after the City of Spokane had sent out a press release, alerting the news media to its response to the civil suit, in which it asked a federal judge to dismiss the case. In its reply, the city once again sought to pin responsibility on Otto Zehm for the violence.

“The use of force used upon Mr. Zehm was caused and necessitated by his own acts,” the reply motion stated, “and said force was necessary and reasonable” given what the responding officers knew and witnessed at the time.

That brought a sharp response from the Center’s Chief Catalyst, Breean Beggs, who again accused the city of blaming the victim.

“What it looks like in hindsight,” Beggs said, when asked about it today, “is that the city knew this indictment was coming and did its best to get out a public relations story, trashing Otto, in the papers before readers knew about the indictment. It’s just amazing that you would take somebody like Otto, who had committed no crime, who was more vulnerable than most people because of his mental illness, who was attacked, as we can see on video, and then have the audacity to say that anything that happened was his fault. This gets to the core of the case for the family, which is until the City acknowledges its responsibility in Otto’s death, it’s going to be difficult for them to improve things so that other people don’t die.”

As for Monday’s indictment, Beggs said that it confirms the basis of the civil suit that the Center has brought on behalf of Anne Zehm, Otto’s mother, and his estate. He emphasized that the threshold of evidence needed for the criminal indictments is much higher than that which the plaintiffs face in a civil action, such as the one the Center is pursuing on the Zehm family’s behalf.

“The FBI spent hundreds if not thousands of hours poring over the evidence,” he said. “These are the best law enforcement minds out there, and they determined that there is evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that officer Thompson had violated Otto’s rights, so proving a civil case should be quite a bit easier.”

The Center’s case against the city goes beyond Thompson to name the city itself, Assistant Police Chief Jim Nicks, and six other officers.

McDevitt insisted there was no connection between the civil case and the federal criminal indictments.

“I can’t foresee indictments against other officers at this point,” McDevitt said, in response to a reporter’s question today.

When asked in a followup question what the difference was between Thompson and the other officers involved in Zehm’s arrest, McDevitt simply replied: “This officer [Thompson] got indicted.”

–Tim Connor

Sidebar “Randy and Rocky.”

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