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