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Hearing for accused ex-Sonoma County deputy Charles Blount focuses on ground rules for manslaughter trial

Prosecutors and defense attorneys were in Sonoma County Superior Court Friday morning to set some parameters for the upcoming trial of former sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount, who is accused of manslaughter in the 2019 killing of Bloomfield resident David Ward during a traffic stop.

The pretrial hearing in Judge Robert LaForge’s courtroom centered primarily on whether Ward’s past contact with law enforcement could be examined during the trial and the process of jury selection.

Blount, who sat silently in the courtroom, faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault by a peace officer related to the Nov. 27, 2019, early morning traffic stop that ended in Ward’s death. He is the first police officer to be tried on homicide charges for an on-duty killing in Sonoma County.

Defense attorneys Harry Stern and Andrew Ganz also asked LaForge to consider opening the confidential personnel files of two high-profile witnesses for the prosecution — Sheriff Mark Essick and Assistant Sheriff Jim Naugle. The two officials have previously faulted Blount for his conduct during the incident. Essick called it “extremely troubling”

Information in those files could serve the defense’s case, according to the motion.

The two-hour hearing dealt in the first half with the trial brief filed by prosecutors Robert Waner and Robert Rasp. The document outlined the prosecution’s motions in limine, requests made to the judge before a jury is present that certain testimony be excluded from trial.

The hearing was amicable in tone, with attorneys swapping jokes and agreeing on many of the proposed limitations.

However, points of contention provide some insight into what can be expected in the trial ahead.

Stern and Ganz protested the prosecution’s motion to bar discussions about Ward’s history of interactions with police in front of the jury. Waner’s brief lists four recorded contacts with officers between 2012 and 2019. The court docket available Friday did not show the outcome of those encounters, if any.

“Each one of these events has information associated that might be relevant to Mr. Ward’s conduct,” Stern said, for example, “his propensity to use methamphetamine that was a driving force for his conduct.”

But officers involved in the stop did not know it was Ward driving the car, according to bodyworn camera footage — so any information about his past encounters with law enforcement is irrelevant, Waner said.

“The court will never hear us say that Mr. Ward did not abuse meth,” he said.

Family members said he was in frail physical and mental health, and the Marin County Coroner’s Office said in their autopsy report that he chronically used drugs.

“We’re certainly not going to allow the defense to dirty up Mr. Ward.”

The defense has argued in the past that Ward’s drug use and noncompliant behavior led to his own death.

Ward had reported his vehicle stolen before the morning of Nov. 27 but had not alerted authorities he had recovered it when deputies attempted to pull him over, investigators said. He did not immediately yield, and led deputies on a short pursuit through west county.

Bodyworn camera video shows that after he finally stopped near his Bloomfield home and did not comply with commands he exit the car, Blount reached through the car window, put Ward in a neckhold and slammed his head into the door frame. Another deputy, Jason Little, shocked the man with a stun gun.

Ward was handcuffed and on the ground minutes later when officers began seeking to unsuccessfully revive him. The Marin County Coroner ruled Ward’s death a homicide, concluding he died from cardiorespiratory collapse, blunt impact injuries, neck restraint and the use of a stun gun caused by a “physical confrontation with law enforcement.”

LaForge tabled the some of the motions for further discussion but prohibited the lawyers from talking about the prior law enforcement encounters in front of the jury.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Thursday morning. The lawyers debated the written questions the defense wants to ask potential jurors at the outset of the process.

The questionnaire gives both parties basic information about jury candidates and their possible biases or conflicts of interest.

Prosecutors scrutinized in particular the questions that were meant to gauge people’s feelings toward law enforcement. Waner argued, for example, that asking potential jurors if they have closely followed controversies over police use of force would not show if people had extreme feelings in favor of or against law enforcement.

“Kyle Rittenhouse, Derek Chauvin, Ahmaud Arbery — probably most of us in this room have followed those cases,” Waner said.

Stern responded that including the question on the survey would allow potential jurors to be “more candid” answering on paper and in private. It would weed out people with strong positions from the jury pool early on, saving time later.

“It gets right toward potential bias. And having it in the questionnaire sanitizes it somewhat as opposed to having a lengthy debate … or a shouting match between jurors,” Stern said.

LaForge told both attorneys he would consider their arguments over the weekend. He is poised to weigh in on more of the pretrial motions in Courtroom 1 Monday afternoon. Testimony is scheduled to begin Jan. 3, 2022.

You can reach Staff Writer Emily Wilder at 707-521-5337 or emily.wilder@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @vv1lder.

Emily Wilder

Criminal justice and public safety, The Press Democrat  

Criminal justice is one of the most stirring and consequential systems, both in the North Bay and nationwide. Crime, policing, prosecution and incarceration have ripples that reach many parts of our lives, and these issues are under increasingly powerful microscopes. My goal is to uncover untold stories and understand the unique impacts of criminal justice and public safety on Sonoma County.

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