Prosecutors: WA officer used badge to abuse power (AP)

October 31, 2011

YAKIMA, Wash. ? A Spokane police officer used his badge as a license to brutally beat an unarmed citizen who posed no threat, then continued to disgrace his badge by constructing a web of lies to cover his actions, federal prosecutors said Monday during closing arguments.

Officer Karl Thompson has pleaded not guilty to using excessive force in the death of Otto Zehm, a 36-year-old schizophrenic man. The case has sparked heated criticism of police and city officials and demands for reform, to the point that pretrial publicity forced the trial to be moved from Spokane to Yakima.

Zehm died two days after the encounter in a Zip Trip convenience store on March 18, 2006. Thompson is not accused of killing him, but rather with violating the man’s civil rights by using excessive force and lying about the encounter to investigators.

On what would have been Zehm’s 42nd birthday, 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.”

Defense attorneys were to deliver their closing arguments later Monday. They have said Thompson, 64, used his police training and experience to make a split-second decision to protect himself and the public.

Thompson has claimed that Zehm struggled and fought with him and that those actions that were not reflected in a store surveillance video of the incident because shelves and counters were in the way.

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.

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. He claimed that he struck Zehm when the man ignored commands to stop and drop a bottle.

The video shows that four seconds passed between when Zehm appeared to recognize the officer and the first baton strike.

According to police, officers later hogtied and sat on Zehm. He died two days later without regaining consciousness. A medical examiner ruled the death a homicide and said Zehm died from lack of oxygen to the brain due to heart failure while being restrained on his stomach.

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.


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