Bloomfield man’s death during arrest by Sonoma County deputies ruled a homicide
The death of a Bloomfield man who stopped breathing after a violent struggle with Sonoma County sheriff's deputies last November has been ruled a homicide, the Marin County Coroner's Office announced Thursday evening.
The Nov. 27 death of David Glen Ward resulted from a “physical confrontation with law enforcement,” according to a news release announcing the findings of Dr. Joseph Cohen, Marin County's chief forensic pathologist.
Cohen concluded the death was directly caused by cardiorespiratory collapse, blunt impact injuries, neck restraint and the use of a Taser.
Ward, 52, died after a struggle as sheriff's deputies and Sebastopol police attempted to remove him from his car following a high-speed chase. Authorities initiated the pursuit because they recognized the car Ward was driving as one that had been reported stolen, but after the physical altercation they learned he was the registered owner of the car.
Body-worn camera footage from a Sonoma County sheriff's deputy provided the first public view of the violent struggle. The video showed then-deputy Charles Blount attempting to pull Ward from the car by his left arm. Blount cried out that Ward bit him, and then smashed Ward's head into the side of the car as Deputy Jason Little shocked Ward with his Taser twice.
Blount then wrapped his arm around Ward's neck, in what authorities initially described as an attempted carotid hold - a controversial restraint designed to make a person lose consciousness. Deputies and officers removed Ward from the car and handcuffed him, placing him facedown on the ground. Soon after, they realized he wasn't breathing.
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick announced in December that he served a notice of termination to Blount after two internal affairs investigators reviewed Ward's in-custody death. But Blount resigned from the Sheriff's Office in February, before the termination process was completed.
Izaak Schwaiger, the attorney representing Ward's family, said he was unsurprised that the Marin County Coroner's Office determined that Ward's death was a homicide, but he criticized how long it took for the finding to be released.
“To anyone who watched the video, it would be very surprising if it was ruled anything but a homicide,” Schwaiger said.
Still, Schwaiger and Harry Stern - the San Francisco-based attorney representing Blount - both pointed out that a homicide does not necessarily imply liability. A homicide just means that someone died at the hands of another person.
Schwaiger said he plans to file a lawsuit on behalf of Ward's family against the county, Essick and the deputies involved in the Nov. 27 incident.
“One way or another we're going to get justice for this family,” Schwaiger said. “(Ward) was somebody's son and somebody's friend and somebody's brother.”
Stern, however, said that the use of force that day was “very unfortunate but justifiable.”
“?‘Homicide' does not mean a crime occurred,” Stern said in a text message. “The question is whether or not they are justifiable homicides rather than crimes such as manslaughter or murder. In this case Deputy Blount's use of force was reasonable and justified under the circumstances.”
The report from the Marin County Coroner's Office listed several other conditions that contributed to Ward's death, including hypertensive and atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; pulmonary hypertension and cor pulmonale and remote head trauma. Ward's family said on multiple occasions that he suffered from lung disease and a heart condition, and that he had difficulty breathing and walking ever since he was hit by a drunken driver several years ago.
The report also listed acute methamphetamine intoxication, chronic substance abuse and mental illness as significant conditions that contributed to Ward's death.
“So what?” Schwaiger said in response to this finding. “Because somebody has a drug problem, because somebody has mental health issues, does that mean that they deserve to die? No, of course not - that's absurd.”
Sonoma County Sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Juan Valencia declined to comment on the Marin County Coroner's report, but said in a text message that Santa Rosa Police Department is handling the criminal investigation into Ward's death. After that investigation is complete, the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office will decide whether to file criminal charges.
The Sheriff's Office is still reviewing the incident, Valencia said.