SPOKANE, Wash. -- A judge sentenced former Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson to 51 months in prison Thursday.
Otto Zehm was beaten at the hands of Spokane police six years ago. He died in the hospital days later. Karl F. Thompson Jr. was convicted by a federal jury of using excessive force and lying to investigators in 2011.
The prosecution asked U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle to detain Thompson immediately following the hearing. Thompson had been free since the case unfolded in court, with the exception of spending one night in Bonner County Jail. On Thursday night it was unknown where Thompson was taken.
U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin said Thompson clearly committed aggravated assault under sentencing guidelines. Federal prosecutors asked Judge Van Sickle to sentence Thompson to nine to 11 years in prison. Prosecutor Victor Boutros said Thompson must be held accountable because no one is above the law.
The prosecution rehashed much of what was already discussed during the trial. They told the judge it must have been horrific for Zehm and brought up his last words: "All I wanted was a Snickers."
Prosecutors say Thompson would not have used a baton in this instance if he did not intend to inflict pain. The attorneys showed the baton Thompson used against Zehm to the courtroom, as well as a spreadsheet of the “19 insults” to Zehm’s body, autopsy photos depicting the blows to his head and pictures of Zehm hooked up to a ventilator. They then referenced reports done by other law agencies based on all the evidence following Zehm's death. This included an analysis done by Boise police, which showed Thompson’s testimony did not match the Zip Trip surveillance, according to Durkin.
Zehm’s family and friends addressed the court once the prosecution finished. His cousin Dale called this a brutal and senseless crime and said the scars will remain forever. He explained he’s only seen defiance from Thompson, not remorse. The family’s lawyer spoke for Zehm’s mom Ann, who told her attorney she was too fearful to appear in court. Her letter said it took six years for the city to apologize, and she still wants the same from Thompson.
Others described their family’s disgust with the Spokane officers who saluted Thompson during his trial, and told Thompson he should feel shame for Zehm's death. The family’s portion of the hearing concluded with Zehm’s supervisor weeping at the stand.
After the prosecution concluded its portion of the sentencing hearing, a lunch break was held. The sentence hearing resumed at 1:30 p.m. for the defense portion.
Carl Oreskovich, Thompson’s attorney, asked the judge to set a “necessary and reasonable” sentence for his client and not to sentence him for what he didn’t do.
The defense said Thompson didn’t specifically intend to cause harm to Zehm. “He was not charged with causing death,” argued Oreskovich. He went on to say that Thompson used the baton to get Zehm to comply.
Oreskovich said not all of Zehm’s injuries were intentional and some of them could’ve happened during the struggle. He said that a firefighter at the scene that night thought it was “the biggest fight he had ever seen a man give officers.” The defense argued that Thompson was in his late 50’s, while Zehm was in his 30’s and took multiple officers to restrain him.
The defense said Thompson disagreed with the outcome of the verdict, but accepted the outcome of his acts. They say Thompson made the choice to go to trial and it’s not fair to say he didn’t accept responsibility.
The Defense also argued that Thompson has devoted his life to public service and has helped people with mental illness for years. Oreskovich said Thompson is a good human being who works daily to make policing better.
Oreskovich told the judge a “fair sentence” is not to put Thompson in prison for his entire term and that putting Thompson in prison accomplishes nothing in these circumstances.
Zehm’s family and their attorneys listened intently as Thompson’s defense attorney spoke.
Thompson briefly stepped to the podium to discuss the pre-sentence report with the judge. "I am deeply sorry for the loss of Mr. Zehm. I am also a parent. I know nothing equals the love of our children,” said Thompson. "Mr. Zehm will always be a part of me. I've lived with the events of that night continuously."
Judge Van Sickle said he must determine whether or not the assault was “aggravated.” He said both the baton and taser used in the incident are considered dangerous weapons. Judge Van Sickle said he believes the baton was used to induce pain and cites a little girl in the Zip Trip video who covers her ears when she hears Zehm’s screams from the taser.
The judge said he believed Thompson should’ve tried to talk to Zehm inside the store but he didn’t. “Things seemed to get out of hand and they did,” said Judge Van Sickle. “The result was tragic, but the assault that occurred was a serious assault.”
Thompson appeared stoic as he entered the courtroom, and showed little emotion as he was read his sentence.
Thompson will spend four years and three months in federal prison. The judge ordered him to surrender to U.S. Marshals after the hearing. Thompson’s family was in tears as he was led away in handcuffs.