Questions Persist In Spokane Man's Arrest Death
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
April 19, 2006
SPOKANE, WASHINGTON--Otto Zehm's cause of death has not yet been determined, but the Spokane Police Department maintains that his death was not caused by up to seven officers restraining the man and beating him, or that he was shocked twice with Taser stun guns.
Zehm, 35, died on March 20, just two days after officers subdued him at a Spokane convenience store. Acting police chief Jim Nicks claims that Zehm, who reportedly had a developmental disability and a mental illness, "lunged" at officers who tried to arrest him.
After he was restrained for less than 10 minutes, Zehm started having trouble breathing. He lapsed into a coma and died at a local hospital.
At least one eyewitness at the scene told reporters the janitorial worker was just trying to protect himself when the arresting officer punched him, kicked him, and hit him with a nightstick before calling the other officers for backup.
Investigators have refused to release copies of video of the incident taken from the store's security cameras. NAMI-Washington, an advocacy group for people with mental illness, has been pushing the department to release the video to the press.
Questions about the investigation surfaced after it was reported that detectives with the Spokane County Sheriff's Department, which is investigating the City Police case, asked a court nine days after Zehm's death for a warrant to obtain his medical, mental health, and employment records. The detectives said they needed the information to follow up on the officers' claims that Zehm assaulted them.
Some legal experts have noted that it is highly unusual for investigators to probe the past of a dead person who cannot be charged with a crime.
Gordon Bopp, NAMI's president, told the Spokesman-Review that he wondered how any investigation into Zehm's past could help county detectives learn what officers did to him at the store.
"I certainly don't understand why they would conduct an investigation to include the acquisition of his medical records when he is already deceased," Bopp said. "This is really taking on the dimension of almost an ex post facto vendetta."
Terri Sloyer, an attorney at Spokane's Center for Justice, which is representing Zehm's mother, said the Spokane County Sheriff's Department shouldn't be expected to conduct an independent investigation of the incident, because it is housed in the same building as the Spokane Police Department, and officers for both agencies often work on cases together.
Earlier this month, the Spokesman-Review reported that information on the case has been reviewed by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, which will forward their findings to the Department of Justice to decide whether a full federal investigation is called for.
While Taser stun guns are considered a "non-lethal" means of subduing suspects, the Spokesman-Review cited an Amnesty International report stating that more than 150 people across the country have died after being shocked with Tasers since June 2001. At least ten of those happened since the beginning of this year.
One of those was Troy Anthony Rigby, 29, who suffered a massive heart attack in a Florida jail cell on January 26, three days after he was shocked with Tasers.
Rigby, who had schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was subdued and arrested after jumping out of a moving airliner at a Fort Lauderdale airport. A medical examiner said later that Rigby's death was "due to natural causes".
"Deaths Raise Taser Questions" (Spokesman-Review via November.org)
"Police seize man's records after his death" (Spokesman-Review via KGW-TV)
Opinion: "Time for answers" (Spokesman-Review)
"Spokane Man Dies After Altercation With Cops" March 24, 2006 (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)