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Trying for Justice 

The Zehm trial began last week - a look at what's happened so far and what to expect.

click to enlarge Karl Thompson - KXLY PHOTO
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  • Karl Thompson

Sixty jurors were called, but only eight men and four women remain.

These 12 people will decide the fate of Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson, whose trial began in Yakima last week. More than a hundred witnesses will take the stand during the course of the five-week trial. The U.S. attorneys prosecuting the case have set up shop in Yakima’s federal building. The defense team and reporters are camped out in hotel rooms.

All are there to hear the jury’s answers to two simple questions: Were Otto Zehm’s civil rights violated when Thompson beat and hogtied him at a Zip Trip in 2006? And did Thompson lie to investigators who were looking into the incident that led to Zehm’s death?

The final jurors are a diverse lot, with men and women, a truck driver and a scientist. One of them is from Taiwan; two others are Latino.

So far, they’ve heard opening statements from both the prosecution and the defense.

“It’s a case about a police officer who walked into a convenience store, who unleashed blows on a citizen who posed no threat,” said Victor Boutros, a lawyer with the Department of Justice. “He used his badge as a license to beat the victim with a police baton over and over and over.”

“This will be a long trial,” Carl Oreskovich, Thompson’s defense attorney, told the court. “I think, in the end, the evidence will show this police officer was not acting in a bad purpose, but with the purpose he was charged with: to investigate and protect citizens.”

Since these statements, federal prosecutors have laid out their case and are expected to finish their arguments next Wednesday. Then the defense will make its case.

Aside from eyewitnesses, who have reported seeing no aggression from Zehm, the prosecution has a parade of experts testifying.

Robert Bragg has been teaching law enforcement officers about the use of force at the state police academy since 1981 and has trained instructors from many other states, including Oregon, Montana and California.

On Monday, Bragg testified that he reviewed video of Thompson’s confrontation of Zehm and that Thompson did not have justification for the force he used.

On Tuesday, another expert, Richard Gill, testified that “in my opinion, there is not sufficient time for that verbal exchange” in which Thompson said he told Zehm to put down a two-liter bottle of soda. He also said that Zehm never got into a “boxing” position, as Thompson said he did. Gill is a mechanical engineer “specializing on human factors,” and has testified as an expert in more than a thousand cases.

Other expert witnesses expected to testify for the prosecution include:

Dr. Sally Aiken, a medical examiner for Spokane County who performed Zehm’s autopsy. Like she stated in her report, Aiken is expected to testify that Zehm sustained blunt-force trauma to his head. Thompson has said that he did not strike Zehm in the head with his baton.

Dr. Harry Smith, a “nationally recognized injury causation expert,” according to court documents. He will also testify to the fact that Zehm had “at least three identifiable blunt force impacts to [Zehm’s skull] that are consistent with baton strikes.”

Randy Roper, a patrol division commander with the Boise Police Department, who is expected to say that though Thompson had reason to follow Zehm into the convenience store, he did not have “time to effectively evaluate whether or not Zehm’s actions were pre-assaultive.” He’s also expected to say that “Zehm was not engaged in actively resisting arrest or attempting to evade flight at the moment the initial force was applied.”

Joseph Callanan, who has worked for more than 20 years with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and is a “nationally recognized expert in the areas of law enforcement force utilization,” according to court filings. He’s expected to testify that Thompson had the right to detain Zehm, but his baton use was not justified and “his rapid, independent and reckless approach” on Zehm, as well as the beating, was “grossly unreasonable, unnecessary, and likely unlawful.”

Grant Fredericks, a forensic videographer who reviewed the Zip Trip’s security video for the city. He’s expected to testify to “Thompson’s rapid deployment of his baton, his rapid rush on Mr. Zehm (who had his back to the Officer), Officer Thompson’s continued engagement and almost immediate use of force on Mr. Zehm, who is continuously retreating from the Officer,” court documents say.

As of press time, Assistant Police Chief Jim Nicks, who was acting police chief at the time of the incident, hadn’t taken the stand but was expected to do so. After first saying that Zehm had “lunged” at and “attacked” Thompson, Nicks eventually testified to a grand jury that Zehm didn’t do these things.

Go to courtroom 755 in Spokane’s federal building for a live feed of the proceedings.

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