Spokane Policeman Convicted in Civil Rights Trial of Killing Unarmed Man

A Spokane, Washington, police officer whose March 2006 beating of an unarmed man led to his death was convicted of civil rights and obstruction charges.

Karl F. Thompson Jr., 64, used a Taser on Otto Zehm, 36, and beat him with baton blows to the head, neck and body, the U.S. Department of Justice said yesterday in an e-mailed statement. Zehm was hogtied, stopped breathing, and was taken to the hospital, where he died two days later, according to the government.

Thompson was “given considerable power to enforce the law, but instead he abused his authority when he brutally beat an innocent man,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said in the statement. The Spokane police officer faces as many as 30 years in prison.

Video at trial showed Zehm shopping at a convenience store, and witnesses testified he appeared to be unaware of Thompson charging with his baton raised, according to the statement. Though Zehm never returned to his feet after the initial blows, Thompson continued beating him, including a final flurry of seven baton strikes in eight seconds captured by security cameras, according to the statement.

Carl Oreskovich, a lawyer representing Thompson, didn’t immediately return a call after business hours yesterday seeking comment. Thompson claimed the beating was justified because he felt threatened by a plastic bottle of soda the victim was holding, the Justice Department said.

Thompson went to the store after two teenagers reported a man standing near them at a teller machine leaving with something that looked like money after they canceled their transaction, according to the statement. Police dispatchers made clear that the teenagers weren’t sure if the man had their money, according to the statement.

In a report Thompson gave after Zehm died, Thompson denied hitting the victim in the head with his baton, according to the statement.

The case is U.S. v. Thompson, 09-cr-00088, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Washington (Spokane).

To contact the reporter on this story: Joel Rosenblatt in San Francisco at jrosenblatt@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net

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