Jury deliberations begin in former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy’s manslaughter trial
Closing arguments concluded Monday and jury deliberations have begun in the trial of a former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy charged in the death of a Bloomfield man who died during a traffic stop in 2019.
The four-week-long manslaughter case against Charles Blount in the death of David Ward went to the jury of seven men and five women Monday afternoon following final statements by the prosecution and defense.
Judge Robert LaForge delivered instructions to the jury Monday morning and deliberations began just after 3:30 p.m.
To find Blount guilty of involuntary manslaughter, jurors would to find that he was responsible for killing Ward, 52, in the early morning traffic stop near Ward’s home.
Prosecutors say Ward died after the former deputy approached and violently pulled him from his car following a pursuit, using a now-banned neck hold to subdue the man.
In his closing argument, Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner told jurors that Blount’s action’s were unnecessary, unauthorized and endangered two Sebastopol police officers and a sheriff’s deputy by blocking their line of fire and forcing them out of their covered areas.
“This was a catastrophic failure in judgment,” Waner said.
Defense attorney Harry Stern countered Ward’s poor health was a bigger factor in his death and Blount’s response was reasonable and lawful in a situation involving someone who had just led authorities on a vehicle pursuit.
“The law allowed somebody like Deputy Blount to use force to take somebody in custody,” Stern said.
Blount, who is the county’s first law enforcement official to be tried in an on-duty in-custody death, is accused of involuntary manslaughter and assault by a peace officer. If convicted, he could be sentenced to six years in prison.
Sheriff Mark Essick called Blount’s actions “extremely troubling” and began termination proceedings against Blount, a 19-year Sheriff’s Office veteran who retired before the process was complete.
Ward reported his car stolen during a carjacking days earlier but did not advise authorities he got it back. Officials spotted it and chased Ward at low speeds through western Sonoma County roads before stopping him with a ramming technique known as a pit maneuver.
Ward had a history of using methamphetamine and was under the influence that morning, Waner told jurors Monday, noting that those facts are not in dispute.
Nor is there doubt, he added, that Ward should have cooperated with authorities, who were justified in their pursuit and in making the traffic stop.
After stopping Ward, they surrounded the Honda and were in safe positions to hold their ground until the arrival of nine other units that had been dispatched.
“But instead of the cavalry arriving, Deputy Blount arrived and everything changed,” Waner said.
Blount was on scene for only a moment when he approached Ward’s car by himself even as his shift partner, Deputy Jason Little, who had initiated the pursuit, shouted for him to wait.
The prosecution, as well as Sheriff’s Office officials, contend Blount deviated from protocol when he approached Ward by himself, rapped his gun on the car window and misused a now-banned neck hold on Ward.
Stern said this move was necessary because it allowed his client to check whether the driver was armed and, in the process, Blount put himself in danger.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a perfectly reasonable choice,” Stern said.
Body-camera footage also showed Blount bash Ward’s head against the driver’s side door frame and showed Little use a stun gun on him.
Earlier in the trial, 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.
Outside the vehicle, Ward never regained consciousness.
Stern seized on Ward’s health status when explaining to jurors that the prosecution needs to prove Blount was responsible for Ward’s death.
He reiterated his team’s previous stance that Ward’s health had deteriorated after years of meth usage and that stress from the pursuit played a role in his death.
“It can’t be overstated how unhealthy he was,” Stern said.
Waner noted Ward suffered two rib fractures plus lacerations to his spleen and liver in addition to falling unconscious before dying.
Waner told jurors Monday that Blount was just a deputy assisting at the scene and higher-ranked officials did not authorize him to take action.
“He’s a usurper at that point, just wandering up and taking over. That is a criminally negligent act,” Waner said.
Stern opened his remarks by reiterating that Blount took action based on the information at hand, including reports that a weapon was involved in the earlier reported carjacking, and he urged jurors to see things from his perspective.
He stressed officials “legitimately and reasonably” believed Ward posed a threat on Nov. 27, 2019 and that his actions were not unlawful.
“The prosecution’s case falls so short of the mark,” Stern said.
The jury is set to reconvene for deliberation on Wednesday.
You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at email@example.com. On Twitter @colin_atagi.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to note that the jury is reconvening Wednesday for deliberation.