WASHINGTON – A federal jury today convicted Spokane, Wash., Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., 64, of civil rights and obstruction charges stemming from his March 18, 2006, beating of an unarmed citizen and an extensive cover-up that followed, the Justice Department announced. Following a taser deployment and a rapid series of baton blows to the head, neck and body, the victim Otto Zehm, 36, was hogtied, stopped breathing, and was transported to the hospital, where he died two days later. Thompson claimed the beating was justified because he felt threatened by a plastic bottle of soda the victim was holding.
The evidence at trial established that on the evening of March 18, 2006, the victim went to a Zip Trip convenience store to buy soda and snacks. Security video introduced at trial showed that the victim shopped for soda, Thompson ran into the store, drew his baton and continued to run toward the victim from behind. Witnesses testified that the victim appeared to be completely unaware of Thompson charging towards him as he selected a plastic bottle of soda to purchase. As the victim turned toward the candy aisle, he saw Thompson rushing towards him with his baton raised. According to trial testimony and store security video, less than 2.5 seconds after the victim turned to see the Thompson running towards him, Thompson delivered two overhand baton blows to the victim’s head, knocking him backwards onto the floor. Witnesses testified that Thompson then stood over the victim and fired taser probes down into chest as he was in the fetal position on the floor beneath him. The victim never returned to his feet, but Thompson continued to deliver overhand baton blows, including a final flurry of seven baton strikes in eight seconds, which was captured by the convenience store’s security cameras.
Evidence at trial established that Thompson went to the convenience store after two teenagers reported that a man fitting the victim’s description had approached a drive-up ATM on foot as they were conducting a transaction, and they felt uncomfortable. After the teenagers pulled away from the ATM, they were unsure whether they had cancelled their transaction. They reported that the man who had been standing near them, approached the ATM and left with something in his hands that looked like money. Prior to Thompson’s first strike, dispatchers made clear that the complainants were not sure whether the man at the ATM had taken any of their money. One of the women at the ATM who called 911 that night testified at trial that she was horrified by Thompson’s rapid series of overhand baton blows to the victim.
Testimony at trial established that Thompson never asked the victim any questions or even mentioned the ATM. Witnesses testified that the victim’s last words were: “All I wanted was a Snickers.” The Spokane Police Department investigated charges against the victim based on a report by Thompson that he had assaulted him. However, the victim was never charged with theft or robbery, and evidence at trial established that police officers found his paycheck on him.
Thompson gave his report of the incident on March 22, 2006, after he knew the victim had died. In his report, Thompson denied hitting the victim in the head with his baton because that would have constituted deadly force, which he acknowledged was not justified in this case. However, trial testimony established that Thompson admitted to Spokane Police Officer Timothy Moses on-scene that night that he had struck the victim in the head and neck with his baton. Witnesses and medical testimony also confirmed that Thompson had delivered baton blows to the victim’s head and neck.
“We are grateful for the jury’s verdict, which vindicates the rights of Otto Zehm,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “The defendant was given considerable power to enforce the law, but instead he abused his authority when he brutally beat an innocent man. This prosecution reflects the department’s commitment to prosecuting official misconduct cases, and today’s conviction sends a message that such violent abuse of power will not be tolerated.”
The defendant faces a maximum penalty of up to 30 years in prison.
This case was investigated by the FBI’s Spokane Field Office, and was prosecuted by Trial Attorney Victor Boutros of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Timothy Durkin and Aine Ahmed of the Eastern District of Washington.