A police officer was sentenced Thursday to more than four years in prison for using excessive force against a mentally disabled janitor who died after being erroneously suspected of stealing money from an ATM.
Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., 65, was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle to four years and three months for his role in the 2006 death of Otto Zehm.
Van Sickle said he hoped the sentence would begin to bring closure to Zehm’s family and to the Spokane community, which has been at odds with the police department as a result of this case and others.
“This had a significant impact on the community and how it viewed its police department,” Van Sickle said.
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 stunned by Thompson in a convenience store. He was hog-tied and sat on by other officers until he passed out. The 36-year-old 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.
Thompson addressed the court, apologizing to Zehm’s mother. “I did not intend to harm Mr. Zehm that night, and did not act in malice,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to protection of the public.”
Thompson is a Vietnam veteran and a decorated 40-year veteran of law enforcement in Los Angeles, northern Idaho and Spokane, Oreskovich said. “This man before you is not a villain,” Oreskovich told the judge.
But federal prosecutors noted that Thompson attacked Zehm without warning, and struck him repeatedly with a 30-inch baton and also stunned him.
“There were seven baton strikes in less than eight seconds,” said Tim Durkin, an assistant U.S. attorney. “There is compelling medical evidence in this case that Mr. Zehm sustained serious bodily injury.”
Prosecutors sought a sentence of nine 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.
Boutros said it was important to remember that Zehm, a mentally ill janitor, had committed no crime.
“He was just going in as he always did to buy his soda and his candy,” Boutros said. Thompson’s actions warranted prison time, he said.
“A badge cannot equate to a free pass,” Boutros said.