Whether former Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy Charles Blount followed protocol crux of manslaughter trial

Monday was the first day of testimony in the trial of Charles Blount.|

In the first day of testimony in the involuntary manslaughter trial of Charles Blount, prosecutors described the former Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy’s use of force during the 2019 traffic stop that ended in a Bloomfield man’s death as a “wild departure” from what a reasonable officer should do.

Defense attorneys, however, contended that Blount did everything he was supposed to in the face of a noncompliant and possibly armed suspect.

Monday’s opening statements marked the beginning of the jury trial of the first law enforcement officer in Sonoma County to be charged with homicide in connection with an on-duty killing.

After four days of jury selection, 12 people sat in the courtroom of Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert LaForge, overflowing from the jury box into the gallery due to courtroom social distancing rules.

The group, comprised of seven men and five women, appears to be mostly white and mostly over age 50. Six alternates of the same demographics sat behind them.

Deputy District Attorneys Robert Waner and Robert Rasp told the jurors to expect a “crash course education in what it is to do law enforcement and what it is to do law enforcement well.”

Blount is charged with felony involuntary manslaughter and felony assault by a peace officer in the roadside death of David Ward.

Early in the morning of Nov. 27, 2019, authorities attempted to pull over Ward, who was driving a vehicle he had days earlier reported carjacked, but had subsequently recovered without telling police.

Ward, officials said, led officers on a pursuit through west Sonoma County before Deputy Jason Little rammed Ward’s car to a stop near Ward’s home. Shortly after, footage from Little’s body-worn camera shows Blount arriving on the scene and ordering Ward to raise his hands and unlock his car door. Ward appeared confused and did not comply.

Blount then reached through the open driver’s side window and grabbed Ward. In the ensuing struggle, the video shows Blount beat Ward, smashed his head into the window frame and wrapped his arm around the man’s neck in a since-banned carotid hold. Little also shot Ward with a stun gun.

Ward fell unconscious and died at the scene. The Marin County Coroner ruled his death a homicide due to a “physical confrontation with law enforcement.”

“This story begins with the theft of a car from David Ward and ends with the theft of David Ward’s life,” said Waner.

The prosecutor acknowledged that Ward was a chronic methamphetamine user and in poor health, that he dangerously and illegally fled from officers the morning of his death, and that the officers reasonably believed he was an armed carjacker rather than the owner of the car.

“Mr. Ward, man, he didn’t make anything easier on anybody,” Waner told the jury.

Nonetheless, Waner contended, Blount needlessly turned the encounter into a deadly one as soon as he arrived.

Playing seven minutes from another officer’s body camera, prosecutors showed the jury the struggle between Blount and Ward — which Waner called a “wild departure from what a properly trained, reasonable officer would do.”

“From the moment Deputy Blount arrived on scene, a peaceful resolution to this incident was impossible,” Waner said, adding it was Blount’s job as a sworn officer to think, “I must manage my fear. I must manage my anger. ... All manner of things might happen, but I must behave well.“

Blount’s defense attorneys Harry Stern and Andrew Ganz countered that every choice their client made was reasonable given the circumstances.

They added that Ward’s erratic and resistant behavior only heightened deputies’ suspicions that they were dealing with a dangerous criminal.

“At every single juncture of this incident, for reasons Waner alluded to, Mr. Ward did everything to confirm to officers responding that he was the carjacking suspect,” Stern said.

Blount used force, Stern said, because he believed his fellow officers were in danger.

“Seizing the initiative is good police work, and that’s what Deputy Blount did,” he said.

Stern told the jury he believes the evidence will show Blount used reasonable force.

In the latter half of the day, prosecutors called three law enforcement officers involved in the carjacking case to testify and asked them to explain proper protocol regarding high-risk traffic stops.

The defense asked the witnesses about the danger posed by a suspect who refused to raise their hands, and how textbook law enforcement protocol doesn’t always work in the field.

Testimony is scheduled to continue Wednesday.

In a short conversation with The Press Democrat, Ward’s half-sister Catherine Aguilera said her family is following how the trial plays out from their home in Washington.

“It’s been two years,” said Aguilera. “In a lot of ways we’re still coping, in a lot of ways we’re still in shock.”

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

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