YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) — Federal prosecutors said a police officer used his badge as a license to brutally beat a citizen who posed no threat, but his lawyer countered in closing arguments Monday that the force veteran was only responding to a perceived threat as his training requires.
Spokane Officer Karl Thompson is accused of using excessive force in the death of Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old schizophrenic man, and of lying about their encounter to investigators. He has pleaded not guilty in the case, which sparked heated criticism of police and city officials and demands for reform.
The pretrial publicity has forced the trial to be moved from Spokane to Yakima, where U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney Victor Boutros told jurors that they can show no one is above the law, and that no one gets special attention — not even police officers.
"The defendant abused the power entrusted to him as a police officer by carrying out a brutal and defenseless attack. He counted on the police department to whitewash his conduct," he said. "Don't let him minimize the fear and terror and panic he inflicted on Mr. Zehm."
Zehm, who would have turned 42 on Monday, died from his injuries two days after their encounter in a Zip Trip convenience store on March 18, 2006. Thompson is not accused of killing him.
Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich said prosecutors failed to show that Thompson acted willfully during the violent encounter.
"He was there to do one thing: be a police officer. He was responding to a call," he said. "They haven't established one iota, not one shred of evidence, that this man acted with bad or evil purpose, that he acted willfully, as they were required under the law to do."
The jury deliberated briefly before adjourning and was expected to resume Tuesday.
If convicted of violating Zehm's civil rights by use of excessive force, Thompson faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of making false statements to investigators.
Zehm was the subject of a police search after two teenagers reported that he might have stolen money at an ATM, though it was later revealed that Zehm had done nothing wrong. U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle has prohibited prosecutors from telling the jury that Zehm was innocent on the night of the confrontation.
Thompson was the first officer to respond and found Zehm entering the store. The surveillance video shows Thompson rushing up to Zehm, knocking him to the ground and repeatedly striking him with a police baton.
The video shows that four seconds passed between when Zehm appeared to recognize the officer and the first baton strike. Thompson said he used his police training and experience to make a split-second decision to protect himself and the public. He struck Zehm, he said, when the man ignored commands to drop a 2-liter soda bottle and adopted an aggressive stance.
Thompson, 64, has more than 40 years of law enforcement experience. His colleagues at the Spokane police department had petitioned for Thompson to be named police chief when the position became available shortly before the incident.
"This is not a tombstone-courage cowboy, but someone who had earned the respect of his colleagues, someone who was known as a thinker, who had a good demeanor," Oreskovich said. "You get a good reputation because you are a good, honorable and hard-working human being, just like this man was — and is — today."
The defense also claimed that Zehm struggled and fought with Thompson and that those actions were not reflected in the store surveillance video because shelves and counters were in the way.
Thompson did not view the video before giving a statement to investigators following the incident. Some of his statements may not line up exactly as the video shows, but he made a mistake as many people do, Oreskovich said.
"We cannot second-guess this type of decision-making," he said. "This is an innocent man doing his best who should not be here in a criminal court of law."
The defense would have jurors believe that experienced police officers have a "spidey-sense" that leaves them beyond impeachment by citizen witnesses, Boutros countered, urging jurors not to forget the actions that led to Zehm's death, which was ruled a homicide.
According to police, officers later hogtied and sat on Zehm. He died without regaining consciousness, and a medical examiner said Zehm died from lack of oxygen to the brain due to heart failure while being restrained on his stomach.
Said Boutros, "With his dying words, he never understood why the defendant had beat him: 'All I wanted was a Snickers.'"