Former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy not guilty in 2019 death of Bloomfield man

In a Wednesday verdict, jurors found Charles Blount not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and assault by a peace officer in the Nov. 27, 2019 death of David Ward.|

More than two years after David Ward died following a violent confrontation with deputies at the end of an early morning car chase, former Sonoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Charles Blount was acquitted Wednesday of all charges related to his role in Ward’s death.

Jurors, who deliberated for seven hours over two days, unanimously found him not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and assault by a peace officer in the Nov. 27, 2019 incident that ended in the death of the 52-year-old Bloomfield man.

Blount, the first local law enforcement official to stand trial in connection with an in-custody, on-duty killing, could have faced six years in prison if he’d been convicted.

A male juror, who declined to provide his name, told reporters following the verdict, “It was a very interesting and disturbing case. ... Nothing this officer did was beyond the scope of proper behavior.”

Ultimately, jurors found that Blount’s actions were lawful and that he had not committed manslaughter.

Blount, dressed in a dark blue suit, shook hands with his defense team as the verdict was read.

Judge Robert LaForge thanked jurors for their service and the courtroom cleared moments later.

Standing beside Blount outside the courthouse, defense attorney Harry Stern called the trial “an extremely tough case.”

He later issued a statement thanking jurors “for their patience and hard work. Charlie is relieved and grateful. I would also like to reiterate our condolences to Mr. Ward’s family and friends.”

A request for comment from District Attorney Jill Ravitch’s Office was referred to an office spokesman, who did not respond by Press Democrat deadline.

Prosecutors, during the four-week trial, had contended that Blount’s actions were criminally negligent and that he used excessive force that resulted in Ward’s death.

One of their lead witnesses, Dr. Joseph Cohen, Marin County's chief forensic pathologist, testified that Ward died due to a physical confrontation with law enforcement and that his injuries were caused by blunt impacts, electrical shock from a stun gun and a now-banned neck hold Blount had used — and applied improperly, according to later testimony from Assistant Sheriff Jim Naugle.

The defense, though, maintained that Ward’s frail health and his chronic drug abuse — he was on methamphetamine at the time of the encounter — as well as stress from the pursuit were the prevailing factors in his death.

They also stressed that Blount actions were reasonable and lawful given his belief he was responding to a traffic stop where the motorist was suspected to be an armed carjacker.

Only after Ward was detained and unconscious on the ground outside his vehicle did Blount learn from other, newly arrived officers that the driver was Ward, who’d reported the car stolen days before but not told authorities after he’d reclaimed it.

The verdict was difficult news to hear, said Catherine Aguilera, Ward’s half-sister, Wednesday afternoon. She’d been following the case from her home in Washington.

“This is a hard thing not just for us, but for a lot of people in the community as well,” Aguilera said. “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.”

But the verdict was not shocking, she added.

“I actually would have been surprised if he was convicted,” Aguilera said of Blount. “Because there really hasn’t been a history of convictions in these cases.”

Aguilera read from a statement she prepared in the event Blount was found not guilty.

“We will learn to accept it and lay it to rest, and we are deeply grateful for Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner and his colleagues. To the jurors: I don’t envy their difficult task in this complicated legal case. In our hearts we will continue to make medicine of David’s tragic death and live our lives honoring his.”

The case featured in-depth examination of Blount’s actions that morning, in which he violently sought to pull an noncompliant Ward out of the driver’s seat in his Honda Civic. Body-camera footage showed Blount wrapping his arm around Ward’s neck in a now-banned carotid hold and bashing his head into the door frame of the Honda.

A month after the incident, Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick had sought to fire Blount, calling his actions “extremely troubling.” Blount, a 19-year department veteran, retired before completion of the termination proceedings.

“I believe in and respect the criminal justice system, and I respect the jury’s decision,” Essick said Wednesday.

Stern, Blount’s attorney had lashed out at Essick’s decision in 2019 to hold Blount accountable and serve him with notice of firing a day after internal affairs investigators had completed their interviews. He also argued at the time that Ward was responsible for his own demise because he had not complied with authorities.

In court, the Blount’s defense rested more heavily on convincing jurors that his actions were reasonable given the situation and that Ward’s poor health was a major contributing cause of his death.

Blount did not activate his body-worn camera during the incident.

Cody Ebert, president of the Sonoma County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, which represents local sheriff’s deputies, offered condolences to Ward’s family.

“We would like to thank the jury for performing their civic duty during a difficult trial and we respect their verdict as an integral part of the criminal justice system,” he said.

Blount’s case went to the jury of five women and seven men Monday afternoon following testimony from multiple witnesses that began on Jan. 10.

Prosecutors sought to prove that Blount exceeded both department policy and the law with his aggressive actions in the traffic stop not far from Ward’s Bloomfield home.

The stop ended after slow-speed vehicle pursuit initiated by Blount’s shift partner, Deputy Jason Little. Two Sebastopol police officers also were involved in the stop.

Days earlier, Ward had reported his car stolen in a carjacking, but he did not advise authorities that he’d since recovered the car. Little spotted it and chased Ward before stopping him on Sutton Road with a ramming technique known as a PIT maneuver.

Law enforcement body camera footage showed Blount wrapping his arm around Ward’s neck in a carotid hold and slamming his head into the door frame of the Honda. Little twice fired a stun gun at Ward through one of the car’s open windows after he failed to follow commands to get out of the car.

After he was removed from the car and placed on the ground, Ward was found to have stopped breathing. Efforts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.

Cohen, the Marin County chief forensic pathologist, told jurors that in addition to the injuries he’d suffered during his struggle with Blount and the effects of the stun gun, Ward’s poor health, including his chronic use of methamphetamine and heart and lung disease, also played a role in his death.

Naugle, the assistant sheriff who was called to testify by prosecutors, contended that Blount made a series of tactical errors when he arrived on scene that endangered the other officers. He added that Blount had improperly applied the carotid hold around Ward’s neck.

“This was a catastrophic failure in judgment,” Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney Robert Waner told jurors during his closing argument.

Little, Blount’s shift partner, testified that the encounter with Ward went differently than he had foreseen once Blount arrived on scene.

But Blount testified that his actions were appropriate and reasonable given the information he had at the time, which he said led him to believe he was attempting to arrest an armed carjacker.

“I think I de-escalated the situation,” Blount told the jury during his testimony last week.

Once backup did arrive, one of the deputies told Blount and Little that Ward was the owner of the car, according to body camera footage.

“Oh well,” Blount said.

Blount retired from the Sheriff’s Office in February 2020.

A grand jury indicted him on Oct. 30, 2020 and he turned himself in days later.

Ward’s family filed a civil rights lawsuit against the county, claiming Blount and Little used excessive force. Little, who was was not charged in Ward’s death, returned to work after being placed on routine administrative leave during an internal investigation.

The county reached a record $3.8 million settlement with Ward’s family in April.

You can reach Staff Writer Colin Atagi at On Twitter @colin_atagi

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