From: The Press Democrat
By: COLIN ATAGI AND EMILY WILDER, Feb 2, 2022
Jurors in the trial of former Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount have found him not guilty in the death of 52-year-old David Ward of Bloomfield.
Blount, the first local law enforcement official to stand trial in connection with an in-custody, on-duty killing, could have faced six years in prison if he’d been convicted.
In a verdict that was read shortly after 3 p.m. Wednesday, jurors unanimously found Blount not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and assault by a peace officer in the Nov. 27, 2019 traffic pursuit/stop that ended in the death of Ward.
A male juror, who declined to provide his name, told reporters following the verdict, “It was a very interesting and disturbing case. ... Nothing this officer did was beyond the scope of proper behavior.”
Ultimately, jurors found that Blount’s actions were lawful and that he did not cause the death of Ward, he said.
Blount shook hands with his defense team as the verdict was read.
Judge Robert LaForge thanked jurors for their service and the courtroom cleared moments after the verdict was read.
Standing beside Blount outside the courthouse, defense attorney Harry Stern called the trial “an extremely tough case” and thanked the jurors on his client’s behalf.
Prosecutors, during the four-week trial, had contended that Ward’s actions were criminally negligent and that he used excessive force that resulted in Ward’s death.
The defense, though, maintained that Ward’s frail health and his chronic drug abuse — he was on methamphetamine at the time of the encounter — as well as stress from the pursuit were the prevailing factors in his death.
The verdict was difficult news to hear, said Ward’s half-sister Catherine Aguilera Wednesday afternoon. She’d been following the case from her home in Washington.
“This is a hard thing not just for us, but for a lot of people in the community as well,” Aguilera said. “People in the community and across the nation are paying attention to excessive use of force in law enforcement — and wanting something to be done about it.”
But the verdict was not shocking, she added.
“I actually would have been surprised if he was convicted,” Aguilera said of Blount. “Because there really hasn’t been a history of convictions in these cases.”
She then read from a statement she prepared in the event Blount was found not guilty.
“We will learn to accept it and lay it to rest, and we are deeply grateful for Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner and his colleagues. To the jurors: I don’t envy their difficult task in this complicated legal case. In our hearts we will continue to make medicine of David’s tragic death and live our lives honoring his.”
Blount’s case went to the jury of five women and seven men on Monday afternoon following testimony from multiple witnesses that began on Jan. 10.
Prosecutors sought to prove that Ward died after Blount violently pulled him from his Honda Civic following a early morning pursuit that involved two Sebastopol police officers and a second deputy, Jason Little, in western Sonoma County.
Ward reported his car stolen during a carjacking days earlier but did not advise authorities he got it back. Little spotted it and chased Ward before stopping him on Sutton Road with a ramming technique known as a pit maneuver.
Body cam footage shows Blount wrapping his arm around Ward’s neck in a now-banned carotid hold and bashing his head into the side of the Honda. Little fired a stun gun twice at Ward through an open window after he did not follow commands to get out of the car.
On the ground outside the vehicle, Ward stopped breathing and efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.
Dr. Joseph Cohen, Marin County's chief forensic pathologist, testified Ward died due to a physical confrontation with law enforcement and that his injuries were caused by blunt impacts, electrical shock from a stun gun and the neck hold used by Blount.
Cohen added that Ward’s poor health, including chronic use of methamphetamine and heart and lung disease also played a role in his death.
Witnesses called by the prosecution, including Assistant Sheriff Jim Naugle, said Blount made a series of tactical errors when he arrived on scene that endangered the other officers and that he had improperly applied the carotid hold around Ward’s neck.
“This was a catastrophic failure in judgment,” Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner told jurors on Monday.
Little, Blount’s shift partner, testified last that the encounter with Ward went differently than he had foreseen once Blount arrived on scene.
But Blount testified his actions were appropriate and reasonable given the information he had at the time, which he said led him to believe he was approaching an armed carjacker.
“I think I de-escalated the situation,” Blount told the jury last week.
Once backup did arrive and after Ward was detained on the ground outside his vehicle, one of the deputies advised Blount and Little that Ward was the owner of the car, according to body-camera footage.
“Oh well,” Blount said.
Sheriff Mark Essick called Blount’s actions “extremely troubling” and sought to fire Blount, a 19-year Sheriff’s Office veteran, about a month after the traffic stop.
Blount retired in February 2020 before the termination process was complete.
A grand jury indicted Blount in Oct. 30, 2020 and he turned himself in days later.
Ward’s family filed a civil rights lawsuit against the county, claiming Blount and Little used excessive force. Little was not charged and returned to work after being placed on routine administrative leave during an internal investigation.
The county reached a record $3.8 million settlement in April.