A Spokane Police officer who ignited a confrontation that led to the death of a mentally ill man last spring will not face any criminal charges, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker says.
On Monday, Tucker told The Inlander that he reviewed enhanced security video from a north side mini-mart where Officer Karl Thompson was the first to confront Otto Zehm, a 37-year-old janitor who fit the description of a suspect in a reported ATM robbery.
Jerky security video from the Zip-Trip shows Thompson quickly approach Zehm from behind with baton raised. When Zehm turns around, two-liter pop bottle in hand, the fight is on. Thompson quickly delivers an overhand baton strike. The enhanced video, Tucker says, appears to show Zehm raising the pop bottle in his right hand. Thompson has told internal affairs investigators that he considered the plastic bottle a potential weapon and that it informed his decision to take aggressive action against Zehm.
"The video, even after it's enhanced ... you can't tell," Tucker says. "I have nothing to go to court with. As of now, there is insufficient evidence to show a crime was committed."
Thompson could face fourth-degree assault, or possible charges involving the use of deadly force if it can be shown his baton struck Zehm in the head. There could also be charges over placement of a plastic mask over Zehm's face after the struggle to be used as a "spit shield." Zehm died minutes after the mask was put on.
Tucker says his decision not to bring charges could change if the FBI finds evidence that he didn't see. The FBI has taken the enhanced video to their national headquarters at Quantico, Va., for analysis.
FBI senior agent Frank Harrill says the agency routinely becomes involved in cases like Zehm's. "Whenever there is a credible report of a violation of an individual's civil rights, the FBI conducts an inquiry," Harrill says. This is especially true when someone dies in law enforcement custody or in restraints, he says.
Harrill says he cannot say when the FBI inquiry will be complete.