YAKIMA, Wa. (CN) – The trial of a police officer accused of murdering a mentally ill janitor by bashing his head with a baton and Tasering him to death began Wednesday after a federal judge refused to hold the trial in the city where the death occurred and also refused to let prosecutors show that the janitor had not committed any crimes.
Spokane police officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. responded on March 18, 2006, to an ultimately false report that Otto Zehm stole money from an ATM. After confronting Zehm in a convenience store, a struggle ensued, and Thompson beat Zehm with a baton and Tasered him repeatedly. Other officers then rushed in, tied up Zehm, placed a plastic mask over his face and sat on him until he stopped breathing, according to court documents. Zehm died a few days later.
The Spokane County medical examiner ruled Zem’s death a homicide, but local prosecutors refused to file charges against Thompson. The FBI eventually investigated the case and filed charges against Thompson for using unreasonable force and making a false statement.
Thompson’s lawyer, Carl Oreskovich, sought a change of venue after the deadline had passed, citing recent publicity about the upcoming trial as a concern. Prosecutors objected, saying Thompson’s own lawyers deliberately participated in media coverage.
“In this vein, the United States submits that the following recitals and attached materials unequivocally demonstrates that that defendant’s multiple counsel (both private and within the city attorney’s office), his supervisors, co-workers, political supporters, and friends, have all actively participated in, have promoted and have solicited media interviews, statements, stories, reports, and even news conferences,” the motion states. “The United States further submits that ‘the defense’s’ active participation and conduct estops the defendant and his counsel from now crying wolf about perceived negative media reports at this 11th hour stage in these criminal case proceedings.”
U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle changed the venue to Yakima but ordered a live video feed of the proceeding to be shown at the federal courthouse in Spokane. Prosecutors had claimed that the new venue, 200 miles from Spokane, made it difficult for Zehm’s family to attend the proceedings.
Van Sickle refused to reconsider the ruling on Oct. 6, the same day he also declined to reconsider his position about evidence of Zehm’s ultimate innocence.
Van Sickle had ruled in June to exclude evidence showing that Zehm didn’t steal any money.
“After Mr. Zehm’s death, investigators learned he had not, in fact, taken money from Ms. Smith’s bank account,” the October order states. “To the government, Mr. Zehm’s innocent conduct at the ATM means he entered the convenience store with a clear conscience. The government argues a person with a clear conscience is less likely to resist a police officer than a person with a guilty conscience. Therefore, in the government’s opinion, evidence of Mr. Zehm’s innocent conduct tends to undermine Officer Thompson’s allegation that Mr. Zehm posed a threat to his safety. Indeed, according to the government, Mr. Zehm never did understand why the officers were attempting to restrain him. This can be seen, says the government, from a statement he made shortly before his heart stopped beating. The government alleges he said, ‘All I wanted was a Snickers.’ From the government’s perspective, this statement indicates he thought the struggle involved items he had
picked up in the store.”
But evidence of Zehm’s innocence is “not essential to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt,” according to the court.
“Furthermore, there is a dispute as to what occurred at the ATM,” Van Sickle added. “The defendant would be entitled to contest the government’s version. This could lead to a trial within a trial.”