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Who was simply trying to buy a candy bar

November 04, 2011

The late Howard Zehm. He just wanted to buy a candy bar. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Spokane police officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. who now faces the possibility of decades behind bars at sentencing. CLICK TO ENLARGE
(YAKIMA, WA) — If Howard Zehm, a 36-year old mentally disabled man had not gone into a Spokane store to buy a candy bar that night in 2006, he might be alive today.

But he did go into that store and unfortunately for him, say federal prosecutors and the FBI, he ran into a rogue police officer in a rage who brutally beat Zehm for no good reason.

A federal jury in Yakima Wednesday convicted Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., 64, of a civil rights violation and obstruction of justice charges stemming from his March 18, 2006 brutal beating of an unarmed disabled man and an extensive cover-up of the incident that followed, the Justice Department announced this week.

A report from the FBI’s Seattle office said following a Taser deployment that night on a bewildered Zehm inside of a convenience store, where Zehm had gone to buy snacks, and a rapid series of baton blows to the head, neck, and body of the victim, Mr. Zehm was then hogtied, stopped breathing, and was transported to a hospital where he died two days later.

As Zehm lay hogtied on the floor, his face was covered by a plastic mask, purportedly to keep him from spitting at the officers, according to court documents. Within minutes he stopped breathing. He was revived and hospitalized but never regained consciousness. He was pronounced dead two days later. The cause of death was lack of oxygen to his brain.

Thompson, a former Los Angeles police officer, 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 Mr. Zehm went to a convenience store to buy soda and snacks.

Security video introduced at trial showed that while Zehm shopped for soda, Thompson ran into the store, drew his baton, and continued to run toward Zehm from behind.

Witnesses testified that Zehm appeared to be completely unaware of Thompson charging towards him as he selected a plastic bottle of soda to purchase.

As Zehm 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 Zehm turned to see Thompson running towards him, Thompson delivered two hard overhand baton blows to the victim’s head, knocking him backwards onto the floor.

Witnesses testified that Thompson then stood over Zehm and fired high voltage Taser probes down into his chest as Zehm was in the fetal position on the floor beneath him.

Zehm 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, according to the FBI.

Evidence at trial established that Thompson went to the convenience store after two teenagers reported that a man fitting Zehm’s description had approached a drive-up ATM on foot as they were conducting a transaction, and they felt “uncomfortable.”

After the teens pulled away from the ATM, they were unsure whether they had cancelled their transaction and they then 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 on Zehm, the FBI says dispatchers made it clear that the complainants were not even sure whether the man at the ATM had taken any of their money.

And 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 regarding the incident with the teenagers before he began to beat and Taser him not did Thompson even mention the ATM to Zehm.

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 Zehm had assaulted him. However Zehm 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 Zehm’s head and neck.

Thompson was never charged with killing Zehm. Instead, he was charged under federal civil rights laws. The jury convicted him of violating Zehm's civil rights by using excessive force and of making a false statement. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

“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,” added Perez.



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