SPOKANE, Wash. – In the second day of Spokane Police officer Karl Thompson's use-of-force trial a jury heard Thompson tell a Spokane investigator that Otto Zehm was "ready to strike" and in a "boxing stance" while inside the Zip Trip on March 18, 2006.
Thompson recounted the events of the deadly brawl in a recorded interview with Spokane police Detective Terry Ferguson, which was played before the jury Friday morning.
Five years ago Thompson entered the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division St. with information that Zehm may have robbed two women in a car using a nearby ATM. That information later proved to be false. Federal prosecutors countered that Zehm entered the convenience store, which he routinely visited, to buy a soft drink and fast food.
Gritty video from the convenience store security cameras show that within seconds of Thompson entering the store, he ran up to Zehm. Thompson insisted Zehm posed a physical threat and used the two-liter bottle as a weapon.
"It was not a passive stance, it was a very resolute stance. His whole body suggested that it was tensed and prepared to respond either by pushing, throwing or charging me," Thompson was heard saying on the recording. "That's the interpretation that I recognized. That's the snapshot that I have from a lot of experience and training."
Thompson said he instructed Zehm to drop the bottle several times but said Zehm refused. Prosecutors said Thompson then proceeded to whack Zhem with a baton multiple times.
"There were a lot of growls and roars and screams," Thompson explained on the recording. "The majority just being guttural loud growls and roars - somebody who's typifying the high level of commitment of resisting or attacking."
Thompson insisted that his actions were meant draw Zhem down to the floor and arrest him. Federal prosecutors countered that Thompson's repeated blows to Zhem's head constituted deadly force.
"I had deadly force available but I did not perceive this as a deadly threat," Thompson continued.
The 2006 confrontation inside the Zip Trip ended when Thompson – followed by several other Spokane Police officers – beat, tased and hog-tied Zhem. Zehm stopped breathing at the store and died two days later in the hospital without regaining consciousness. Two months later, in May 2006, the Spokane County Medical Examiner ruled Zehm died of a homicide.
"You can hit someone in the head inadvertently but we try to mitigate that in our training," Robert Bragg Jr. said, who is in charge of physical force tactics at Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, also known as Police Academy.
Bragg testified at length Friday about batons and their parameters as a use of force.
Bragg discussed Thompson's request to use his non-standard baton from Los Angeles, where he previously worked. He explained that the baton was longer & wood, not metal like usual batons.
"I found that interesting, that he actually preferred a longer baton," Bragg said, since he said police officers don't have to get as close to a person if the baton is longer.
Shortly after the tape concluded 19-year-old student Britni Brashers took the stand. She was an eyewitness inside the convenience store the night of the brawl. Her testimony of the events provided a stark contrast to officer Thompson's recollection.
Then 13-year-old Britni Brashers and then her seven-year-old sister said they were buying milk and a couple of candy bars at Zip Trip. At the time, the teen recalled seeing Zehm "looking at items just like any other person". She said he was holding a two-liter soda bottle, by the cap, dangled at his side.
When Officer Thompson entered the Zip Trip, Brashers testified that Thompson approached Zehm "quickly and frantically" never saying anything – or issuing any commands - to Zehm beforehand.
"As (Officer Thompson) was getting closer, he was reach for his baton and once he got closer he pulled it out and hit (Zehm)," Brashers explained. She said she watched as Officer Thompson hit Zehm hit with baton seven to 10 times on his upper body "with a full cock-back swing."
Zehm was "very startled," Brashers continued and was never in a "boxing stance" which Thompson had previously indicated. Once struck by Thompson, Brashers described Zehm screaming in a "little bit of pain and a little bit of anger" ."
Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich cross-examined Brashers at length, questioning if she knew the difference between pain and angry pain.
He also used a scale model of the Zip Trip to question exactly what Brashers saw during the confrontation. He argued that it was possible she did not see the entire confrontation as aisles could have obstructed her view.
Later that night when she got home Brashers said watched the news to hear about the confrontation but saw errors in the reports, largely that the news reported Zehm lunged at officers. Since that's not what Brashers said she saw, she had her mom call the stations to set the record straight.
Oreskovich also questioned Brasher about how much Federal officials influenced her statements. Brashers responded that she was told to "tell the truth."
A second eyewitness, Carissa Dougherty, who was in the parking lot of the Zip Trip the night of the confrontation was also called to the stand by the U.S. Government. Dougherty testified that she was sitting in her car in the parking lot but had an unobstructed view of the store inside.
"The officer had his hand on his baton when he went past me" and immediately struck Zhem on the back shoulder blade," she said.
Karl Thompson on trial for excessive use of force, violating Zehm's civil rights, and lying to investigators. His trial was moved to Yakima in light of intense media publicity. The trial is expected to last five weeks.
This story was filed by KHQ Local News Reporter Chelsea Kopta
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