Medical Examiner: Zehm's Restraint Death Was A Homicide
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
June 1, 2006
SPOKANE, WASHINGTON--The death of a Spokane man, who died two days after being restrained, handcuffed, hogtied, and shocked with a taser stun gun by police, has been ruled a homicide.
Spokane County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken issued a death certificate Tuesday, saying that Otto Carl Zehm, 36, died on March 20 of the earlier heart attack "while restrained in a prone position for excited delirium", a condition that is common with methamphetamine users.
Acting Chief of Police Jim Nicks told KXLY-TV that no illegal or legal drugs were found in Zehm's system, not even the medication that was prescribed for his schizophrenia. Nicks suggested that if Zehm had taken his medication, he might not have acted "in a bizarre manner" at a bank ATM, which originally prompted officers to seek him out and arrest him at the nearby Zip Trip convenience store.
Nicks added that the "hobble restraint" officers used -- which involved cuffing Zehm's wrists and ankles, then connecting the two with a strap behind his back -- followed proper police procedure.
Aiken's homicide finding does not necessarily mean that any of the seven Spokane Police officers who were involved in Zehm's restraint would be charged with a crime. Under Washington law, a homicide ruling means that the death was caused at the hands of one or more persons, but does not mean those involved intended to cause the death.
The Spokane County Sheriff's Department is conducting an investigation into any wrongdoing by Spokane city officers. Questions were raised about that investigation in April after it was revealed that sheriff's deputies requested a warrant for Zehm's 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 said that it was highly unusual for investigators to probe the past of a dead person who cannot be charged with a crime.
On Thursday, the Spokesman-Review reported that Zehm's family and the attorney representing them would be allowed to view investigation files, including the entire autopsy report, under condition that they not talk about the contents with the public or media.
Local news agencies and the advocacy group NAMI-Washington have been trying to get police to release video taken from the convenience store's security camera. One eyewitness told KXLY that the officers attacked Zehm and that he was simply trying to protect himself.
Zehm, who reportedly also had a developmental disability, worked as a janitor at Fairchild Air Force Base under a contract with Skils'kin, an employment services agency known until a few years ago as Pre-Vocational Training Center.
"Zehm death ruled homicide" (KXLY-TV)
"Lawyer files order sealing files in Zehm death" (KXLY-TV)
Otto Zehm's Deadly Struggle With Cops (Inclusion Daily Express Archives)