Grand jury transcripts allege tactical errors by former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy in 2019 death of Bloomfield man
Gun drawn, former Sonoma County sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount walked up behind a fellow deputy who was shouting orders to a man held at gunpoint behind the wheel of a stopped car.
“How many inside?” Blount asked.
“One,” Deputy Jason Little said.
Blount stepped around Little and strode up to the 2003 Honda Civic, tapping on the driver’s side window with his gun, his finger on the trigger.
Behind the wheel was David Ward, who inexplicably led law enforcement on a meandering chase across a network of rural west county roads after a deputy had tried to pull him over.
Squinting in the bright beam of Blount’s flashlight through a black eye from an earlier beating, Ward initially put his hands up, then seemed to hesitate.
Within about four minutes of Blount’s arrival at this scene Nov. 27, 2019, on a rural Bloomfield road in west county, Ward was on the ground in handcuffs. Deputies had struggled mightily to pull a seemingly reluctant Ward — who at points bit their fingers — out of the car through the driver’s side window. He fell unconscious while handcuffed, stopped breathing and died.
Newly public transcripts from secret criminal grand jury proceedings, which led to a criminal indictment against Blount in October, reveal fresh details about the night a hard-charging deputy with 19 years on the force crossed paths with a severely frail Bloomfield man who had just recovered a car he reported stolen three days earlier.
At roughly 1,120 pages, the transcripts show how the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office gave a neutral presentation of the evidence against Blount and hired an expert who found the deputy’s actions reasonable.
The sharpest critique of Blount’s actions came from Assistant Sheriff James Naugle, who said the deputy made several tactical mistakes that escalated the level of danger to himself and others.
Videos from deputies’ body-worn cameras depict the violent, hard-to-watch final moments of Ward’s life. Blount first tried to pull Ward out of the open car window, bashing Ward’s head into the window frame, then punching him and wrapping his arm around Ward’s neck in a botched stranglehold called a carotid restraint. Little shocked Ward with a taser.
But not once did prosecutor Bob Waner or testifying experts describe Blount’s actions as crimes before the grand jury.
Instead, jurors were asked to consider “the totality of the circumstances,” District Attorney Jill Ravitch said in an emailed response to questions from The Press Democrat.
The grand jurors were also given evidence in Blount’s favor, Ravitch said, because “we felt that in this case the grand jury needed to receive a full view of the matter to decide whether to issue an indictment.”
Testimony presented to the 19-member grand jury over seven days featured accounts from medical experts including Ward’s doctor, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy of Ward, a use-of-force expert hired by the District Attorney’s Office and nine local law enforcement officers, including Naugle.
Most criminal cases go through a public court process with prosecutors taking an adversarial stance, a role that requires them to convince a judge there is adequate evidence of a crime to place the defendant on trial. Grand jury proceedings, however, are held behind closed doors out of view from the public. The prosecution serves a role as a neutral presenter of information and grand jurors have greater authority to decide whether charges are warranted. Blount was informed about the proceedings, which is not required, and he provided a medical expert who testified that Ward’s methamphetamine use and poor health appeared to be significant contributors to his death.
Though the prosecution appeared to provide little evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Blount, at least 12 of the 19 grand jurors saw enough to indict Blount on felony charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault by a public officer.
The jurors deliberated for one day and returned a verdict to indict Blount on Oct. 30.
Grand jurors were not told that one month after Ward’s death, Sheriff Mark Essick announced he was initiating proceedings to fire Blount. He said Blount violated general rules for Sheriff’s Office employees, but declined to elaborate.
They also didn’t hear about further analysis from Karlene Navarro, director of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach, that an internal investigation found Blount failed to de-escalate the situation, despite training and department rules for such situations.
Ward’s mother asserts in a federal civil rights lawsuit that Blount used excessive force against her son and it killed him. That case is pending.
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