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How groundbreaking trial of a Sonoma County deputy ended in acquittal over killing

Charles Blount’s trial was historic in its nature, but in some respects it was also the norm.|

Only one officer has ever been charged with killing someone while wearing the badge in Sonoma County — and as of Feb. 2, none have been convicted.

Former Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount was the first local officer to stand trial for an on-duty homicide.

He was accused of involuntary manslaughter and assault by a police officer for his involvement in the 2019 roadside death of David Ward, captured in graphic detail on body-worn camera, which brought renewed outrage directed at the Sheriff’s Office and the issue of police brutality in Sonoma County.

The prosecution was extraordinary. Even as the public demands greater accountability for police brutality, research shows police are still rarely criminally charged for alleged misconduct, and the Blount case is evidence of how difficult it is to obtain convictions when they are.

Blount’s trial ended with little fanfare. After four weeks of testimony and eight hours of jury deliberation, Blount was found not guilty of all charges.

He became the latest officer in the country to be acquitted of murder or manslaughter or have his charges dropped — outcomes of police prosecutions which experts say are still the norm, despite a few high-profile cases nationwide that have recently resulted in convictions.

During the trial, Blount’s defense attorneys argued that it was Ward — who failed to pull over and put his hands up, chronically used methamphetamine and was in poor health — who caused his own death.

Blount was justified, his attorneys said, in grabbing the 52-year-old man from behind the wheel of his car, bashing his head into the door frame and putting him in a now-banned neck hold, because he believed Ward was an armed criminal.

“One never knows what does or doesn’t resonate with jurors,” Harry Stern, Blount’s lawyer, said in an email to The Press Democrat about his successful defense.

“Every case is different. Policing is difficult under the best circumstances. I don’t know how cops can go to work every day in the current climate. They have my admiration and gratitude.”

But the verdict came as a blow to those who hoped for an open-and-shut-case. The body-worn camera video of the deadly encounter was so brutal that Sheriff Mark Essick publicly called Blount’s conduct “extremely troubling” and moved to fire the deputy before he retired.

“This is a hard thing not just for us, but for a lot of people in the community as well,” Ward’s half-sister Catherine Aguilera told The Press Democrat. “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.”

“I am absolutely broken-hearted over our criminal justice system,” reacted Katrina Phillips, chair of the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission. “We’re proving time and time again we don’t have one.”

Recent high-profile police killings — especially of such Black civilians as George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky — have heightened scrutiny on agencies and created momentum for reform, a 2021 report by the Public Policy Institute of California states.

However, rates of prosecutions and convictions against officers have not caught up with shifting attitudes toward policing among the public.

“I’m not surprised by the acquittal,” said Sonoma State criminology professor Diana Grant.

“But this is the stirrings of change,” she added.

‘Imperative we hold them accountable’

Outrage over Blount’s actions the morning of Nov. 27, 2019, began with the release of the body-worn camera video one month later, which revealed the details of the violent predawn traffic stop that ended in Ward’s death.

Ward had led Blount’s patrol partner and two Sebastopol police officers on a pursuit through west county in a car he had reported stolen by an armed man days before but did not report recovered.

Deputy Jason Little and the other officers stopped the car and held the man at gunpoint, demanding Ward show his hands, which Ward did not do. Seconds after Blount arrived, he approached Ward’s driver side window with his gun drawn and finger on the trigger.

Ward lowered the window, and Blount reached in and grabbed him, attempting to pull him through the window. As the officers unsuccessfully struggled to extricate Ward, Blount bashed the man’s head into the car’s window frame and put him in a now-banned carotid hold as Little shot him with a stun gun.

Ward lost consciousness and never regained it.

Blount learned from other officers who arrived later that Ward was the vehicle owner.

“Oh, well,” he said.

The body-worn camera video went viral. The Marin County Coroner said Ward died by homicide due to a “physical confrontation with law enforcement.” Essick condemned Blount’s behavior and moved to fire him. The deputy retired first.

And a year after Ward’s death, in a move unprecedented in Sonoma County, a grand jury brought multiple criminal charges against Blount.

District Attorney Jill Ravitch made history for her prosecution of Blount — as well as former Deputy Scott Thorne, whom she charged with assault and whose case ended in mistrial in 2018.

“Listen, I was elected to do my job, and my job is to prosecute people who break the law. I don’t decide who to prosecute based on their standing in the community or based on their place of employment,” Ravitch said.

“When you find a situation where an officer is alleged to have gone beyond where that person’s training should have gotten them to go, we don't want to believe the police engaged in that excessive force – but they do, and when they do it is imperative we hold them accountable.”

Following the acquittal, Ravitch said she and others in her office “respect the verdict.”

A history of on-duty aggression

Ward’s death was not the first incident in which Blount was accused of using excessive force.

In January 2015, the veteran deputy was captured on cell phone video putting 51-year-old Celeste Moon in the same carotid hold he used on Ward and throwing the woman to the ground. He had accused her of jaywalking and running from him.

Blount had testified in court he had not used the choke-hold before the video came to light. Moon’s charges were all dismissed.

A 2019 investigation by KQED uncovered at least one other reported instance of Blount using the carotid hold and two more excessive force lawsuits that named him.

In December, Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner submitted a motion to the court to admit the Moon incident as evidence.

It was relevant, he argued, because it showed Blount “has an emotional trigger that incites him,” which “consists of a perceived insult to the defendant and the failure of the arrestee to immediately yield to police authority.”

However, in a January pretrial hearing, Judge LaForge sided with the defense, who sought to bar any mention of the Moon case or Blount’s alleged dishonesty from testimony.

Stern, Blount’s lawyer, argued the Moon encounter was an irrelevant “non-event.”

“The exclusion of Blount’s prior bad acts — that’s definitely a factor” in the verdict, said civil rights attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who criminally defended Moon and represented Ward’s family in its civil suit against the county.

He said that jurors may have seen the November 2019 incident differently had they known about Blount’s previous controversies, as a major claim in the defense’s case was that officers are forced to make split-second, improvised decisions in the field.

“Juries are left with this impression, ‘Well, shoot, anyone can make an honest mistake,’” Schwaiger said. “When you see, actually, the guy has a history of this kind of stuff, that argument doesn't hold up as well.”

Convincing the jury

In trials of police accused of criminal violence, juries are tasked with determining whether the defendant acted reasonably, given the totality of circumstances.

Waner’s central argument was that Blount’s decisions during the traffic stop were a “wild departure” from what he was trained to do.

The prosecutor pinned his case on Blount’s tactical errors that he said turned the encounter into a deadly one and put himself and his fellow officers in danger — “a catastrophic failure in judgment,” Waner argued.

He was unable to convince the overwhelmingly white, senior-aged jury of Blount’s guilt.

A male juror who declined to provide his name told The Press Democrat following the verdict, “Nothing this officer did was beyond the scope of proper behavior.”

“I thought the circumstances were such that there was a possibility there could be a conviction on some of the counts — before we started to see some more information about David Ward having drugs in his system,” said Grant, the Sonoma State criminology professor.

Grant, whose research focus includes jury decision-making, said studies show juries are more likely to give officers greater benefit of the doubt because of their preconceptions about law enforcement.

This bias increases when the victim is painted in an unsympathetic light. Vital to countering that, Grant said, is humanizing them.

A brother, son, ‘deep thinker’ who struggled

David Ward, pausing for reflection after a lively conversation, in Monroe, Washington in the 1980s. (Courtesy of Catherine Aguilera)
David Ward, pausing for reflection after a lively conversation, in Monroe, Washington in the 1980s. (Courtesy of Catherine Aguilera)

Aguilera, Ward’s half-sister, told The Press Democrat she believes Ward’s humanity was totally absent from the proceedings.

“We knew the defense would take this approach, that David was a meth-head,” she said. “But he was a person.”

Rather than an addict or a criminal, Ward “was really creative. He had a really great sense of humor. He was a deep thinker. He loved children. He was very playful, engaging, compassionate.”

Catherine Aguilera and David Ward on a boat near the San Juan Islands in the 1980s. (Courtesy of Catherine Aguilera)
Catherine Aguilera and David Ward on a boat near the San Juan Islands in the 1980s. (Courtesy of Catherine Aguilera)

Born in Bloomfield, Ward struggled with learning disabilities and inherited physical ailments such as heart disease from his father. He loved reading books about spiritualism and “had a deep soul bond” with his sister.

He was also a health nut. Aguilera recounted how she and their dad would have to hide sweets in the oven where her brother wouldn’t find them and throw them away.

“​​After our dad died, things began to change,” Aguilera said. About six years ago, when Ward was reaching 50 years old, “David began to spiral down.”

His health worsened, he began communicating less, and he started using drugs.

But that doesn’t define him, Aguilera said, and she still deeply mourns the hole he left in her life.

“It’s been two years since the incident,” she said.

“We’ve felt shock and horror and disbelief. But we must learn to live with it.”

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

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