Just how convoluted has the Otto Zehm case become? Consider the news last week: Jim Nicks, assistant chief of Spokane Police, changed his story. And not just a little: He changed it, like, 180 degrees. Thus a key witness for the city’s defense flipped, becoming a key witness for the prosecution. And not only does Nicks still work for the city whose case he is undercutting, but the city is also considering whether to hire him his own attorney for $75,000.
For the average Spokane citizen, it’s a familiar story — hoping is about all we have in the face of another costly mistake. And now the hope’s evaporating, as the city’s case seems to be imploding. Thankfully, just as I write this on Tuesday, Mayor Mary Verner has finally concluded that our legal strategy needs a second look.
Earlier in this six-year ordeal, the Zehm family had agreed to settle in return for a limited amount of money and some changes in the way the Spokane Police do business. Otto Zehm’s mother, Anne, is not after a pound of flesh; she has expressed mercy toward Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson, who faces federal criminal charges. Anne Zehm just doesn’t want this to happen to any other Spokane mom. Could that previous offer still be on the table?
Negotiating a fair end to this makes a lot of sense. It would allow the Spokane Police to enact some changes and address some of the mistrust that has lingered since the Zehm tragedy; defending this case to the bitter end may erode that trust even more. Of course it’s admirable to defend the police — they are put in deadly situations and have to make snap decisions that sometimes turn out badly. But to take the legal position that our police never make mistakes defies common sense. Additionally, some lawyers believe Thompson’s defense in the federal case could be helped if the city were to settle the civil case.
This really is a question of leadership. For five years, it’s been hard to find an elected official willing to take responsibility for or even explain the city’s legal strategy. There are times — say, when seven-figure damages are looming — when electeds need to insert themselves and micromanage city legal staff. We elected them to be accountable, especially for big moral and financial decisions like this one.
Now we need our leaders to step up — we need the mayor and members of the City Council to find the best way out by asking some tough questions and making some hard decisions.
Ted S. McGregor Jr. is the Editor and Publisher of The Inlander.