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Indictment unsealed against former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy Charles Blount

A Sonoma County judge Friday unsealed a criminal indictment against former Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount for his role in the 2019 death of David Ward, who was killed during a physical confrontation at the end of a high-speed chase.

After two days of deliberation, a rarely used criminal grand jury returned the indictment Oct. 30 charging Blount with felony involuntary manslaughter and assault under the color of authority, according to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.

Judge Robert LaForge made the indictment public Friday in a short hearing in Sonoma County Superior Court. Blount and his attorney were not present.

The three-page indictment contained no new information about the chain of events that led to Blount’s arrest, the first Sonoma County law enforcement officer ever to face criminal charges for the death of someone they were trying to detain.

It is the first time in more than a decade that Sonoma County prosecutors have convened a secret grand jury to decide whether there is enough evidence to warrant a criminal trial. Under District Attorney Jill Ravitch, prosecutors until now have chosen to present evidence of alleged crimes in public to both a judge and the defendant in open court hearings.

Ravitch said her office asked Presiding Judge Brad DeMeo to send the case to a grand jury because she believed it would be the most efficient option during the coronavirus pandemic, which halted all jury trials for seven months and created a backlog of cases.

“Given the nature of the case and given the interest in the community not only in this case but other officer-involved fatalities, I wanted to engage in a transparent view of the facts and have that be done in a way that wouldn’t be interrupted and be deliberate and thorough,” Ravitch said.

The proceedings were transparent only to the 19 jurors but otherwise confidential and not open to the public. Blount and his attorney were barred from being present. There are procedures for a target’s attorney to provide evidence to prosecutors that might help prove a person’s innocence, and Ravitch declined to say whether Blount was informed about the proceeding and given that opportunity.

Harry Stern, an attorney for Blount, said the evidence will vindicate the former deputy.

“In my view the grand jury was partly correct: Deputy Blount did not intentionally cause Mr. Ward’s death,” Stern said in an email statement.

Involuntary manslaughter is the unlawful killing of a human being without malice but done without due caution and circumspection.

“The evidence will prove that he died due to a lethal level of methamphetamine abuse which, in turn, presumably caused him to lead officers on a high speed pursuit and then violently resist efforts to arrest him including biting two deputies,” Stern said.

“Deputy Blount’s actions were forceful but ultimately lawful under the circumstances. Mr. Ward’s death is unfortunate, sad and unnecessary and I again extend my sympathies to his family,” he said.

A Marin County coroner investigation ruled Ward’s death was a homicide, saying he died from cardiorespiratory collapse, blunt impact injuries, neck restraint and the use of a Taser caused by a “physical confrontation with law enforcement.”

The court issued a warrant for Blount’s arrest Nov. 2. Blount turned himself in at the jail that night and was released on $50,000 bail.

He will be arraigned on the charges Nov. 12.

Read the indictment here

Blount’s actions during the November 2019 arrest of Ward were “extremely troubling” according to Sheriff Mark Essick, who announced about one month later he would initiate proceedings to fire the deputy. Blount resigned.

On Nov. 27, 2019, a deputy tried to pull Ward over in a car that had been reported stolen. Ward did not stop, leading deputies on a 7-minute high-speed chase before he pulled over on a dead-end road near his home in Bloomfield. Authorities would later learn Ward was driving his own vehicle, one he had reported stolen days earlier but had since recovered.

Ward, who had significant health and physical problems, did not open his car door when deputies ordered him to do so.

Blount reached through the open car window, wrapped his arm around Ward’s neck and bashed his head into the side of the car as he tried to pull Ward out of the car. Another deputy shot Ward with a stun gun. Footage of the incident was recorded on body cameras worn by other deputies. Blount did not activate his camera.

In court Friday, prosecutor Bob Waner told the judge that his office had intended to arraign Blount on the charges but was informed by Blount’s attorney that his client was given a different court date by the jail.

Waner said the District Attorney’s Office would arraign Blount on the charges Nov. 12 and asked the judge to unseal the indictment, making it public.

The jury was the first of any kind to be impaneled in Sonoma County since March, when all criminal trials were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regular jury trials have resumed and the first trial in eight months is underway.

Grand jurors in the Blount case began meeting Oct. 19 to begin hearing evidence in the case. In all, 19 members of the jury panel plus alternates heard evidence from prosecutors and listened to the testimony of 14 witnesses. Those witnesses included nine law enforcement officers, three doctors and others.

"The prosecutor isn’t the advocate they might be in the courtroom, more of a legal adviser to the jury,“ Ravitch said. ”The jury controls the evidence they receive and consider.“

Grand jury proceedings differ from typical criminal cases in which a defendant is arraigned on the charges, then faces a preliminary hearing when evidence is presented to a judge who determines whether it is sufficient for a trial.

The target of the proceeding, in this case, Blount, may or may not be informed about it.

It is different than a civil grand jury, a panel of citizens convened every year to investigate the operations of local government agencies, departments and officers. These juries may produce reports offering analyses and recommendations based on their findings.

This was the first grand jury convened during Ravitch’s 10 years as district attorney. Ravitch said she’s only aware of a grand jury convened around 2000, a proceeding she oversaw as a local prosecutor. The case involved suspects in a high-stakes gang investigation.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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