Former Sonoma County Deputy Found Not Guilty of Manslaughter in Death of Disabled Man

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A screenshot of a body camera video showing a sheriff's deputy at night.
Former Sonoma County Sheriff's Deputy Charles Blount is shown on body camera video moments after violently struggling with David Ward on Nov. 27, 2019. (Courtesy of Sonoma County Sheriff's Office)

A former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy was acquitted Wednesday of involuntary manslaughter and assault in the killing of a disabled man after a high-speed car chase in 2019.

Charles Blount, indicted in late 2020 in the death of David Ward, was the first-ever officer charged in Sonoma County for an on-duty killing, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

Following the verdict, Blount’s lawyer said his client, who has since retired, is “relieved and grateful,” and thanked the jury for their patience. Meanwhile, critics of county law enforcement agencies said the not-guilty verdict, which the jury reached after a mere six hours of deliberation, reinforces the idea that officers can continue to act with “impunity.”

The prosecution, which relied heavily on body camera footage that caught the graphic and violent encounter on tape, aimed to prove that Blount’s reckless decisions and excessive force caused Ward’s death two years ago, following the chase on rural county roads west of Rohnert Park.

In the lawsuit, Ward's attorneys described the 52-year-old Petaluma resident as a disabled person who had been confined to a wheelchair for many years because of a car accident. “David was frail, his mobility greatly limited, and he often relied on supplemental oxygen to breathe,” the suit stated.


Days before the fatal incident, Ward reported that his green Honda Civic had been stolen in a violent carjacking.

But at some point in the early morning of Nov. 27, 2019, Ward got his car back (it's unclear how) but did not report its recovery.

Santa Rosa police identified the car on the road — unaware that Ward was driving it — and contacted several law enforcement agencies to retrieve it. Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Little caught up to the car and followed it while two Sebastopol police officers approached to provide backup.

But when Little tried to pull the car over, Ward sped off, prompting a several-miles-long car chase in which Little twice tried to force Ward off the road — the second time successfully. The deputy and the two police officers surrounded Ward’s car with their guns drawn and shouted for him to keep his hands up.

A few minutes later, Blount arrived to provide additional backup and spoke for a few seconds to Little, whose body camera captured the video from the incident that was played repeatedly for the jury.

After asking how many people were in the car, Blount said, “Let me get up there,” and moved past Little to the driver’s side of Ward’s car. Little can be heard protesting, “Wait, wait, wait.” But when Blount advanced, he followed behind to cover him, Little later testified.

Blount tapped on the driver’s side window and told Ward to unlock the door, which appeared to be broken. Ward instead rolled down the window and said, “I’m the injured party here.”

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“This is a man who is starting to talk,” prosecutor Robert Waner on Monday told the jury during closing arguments of the roughly two-week trial. “Of course he’s behaving badly, but the law enforcement solution is to apprehend, not to punish.”

Blount then grabbed Ward’s arm and tried to pull him out of the driver’s side window, as Little stepped in to help, beginning what Waner called a “flail session.” Moments later, both deputies cried out that Ward, who was still in the car, had bit them. Blount grabbed Ward’s head and smashed it into the car door frame while Little fired his Taser.

Wrapping his arm around Ward’s neck, Blount held him in an improvised neck hold for about 30 seconds until Ward passed out. Other officers removed Ward from the passenger side of the car.

Just before the deputies seemed to realize that Ward had stopped breathing, Sheriff's Deputy Nicholas Jax arrived at the scene and identified the suspect, informing the other officers, including Blount, that Ward was the owner of the stolen car.

“Oh, well,” Blount replied.

Ward was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital about an hour later.

A coroner’s investigation conducted by pathologist Dr. Joseph Cohen found that Ward’s death was a homicide caused by heart and lung failure after a confrontation with law enforcement. But the pathologist also found that Ward’s methamphetamine use and pre-existing heart condition were significant factors.

Blount’s defense argued that no injury that he inflicted was directly linked to Ward’s death, and that alone was enough reasonable doubt to acquit him.

Defense attorney Harry Stern told the jury that the case never would have been charged, let alone brought to trial, if not for the details that Blount couldn’t have known at the time of the incident: Ward’s serious medical condition and the fact that he was the owner of the car.

“The only way we can criticize him is knowing the end result of the case,” Stern said in his closing statement. “If this is a carjacker and he doesn’t have these medical issues — we’re all saying, ‘Hey, great job, Charlie.’”

Last April, the county settled a lawsuit brought by Ward’s family for $3.8 million. Civil rights attorney Izaak Schwaiger, who represented the family, said he found the verdict difficult to believe.

“There were very few facts in dispute in this case at all. And a man's dead and his killer will now walk free,” he said. “And that is both terrifying and frankly disappointing beyond measure. I feel for David's family right now and what they must be going through, but I feel for our whole community, too, because this killer remains free and there's no answers coming down.”

A 2015 incident, in which Blount used a similar neck hold on a woman who was jaywalking and threw her to the ground, and then later lied about it, was not admitted at trial.

Schwaiger said he was shocked that Blount’s history of perjury was never presented to the jury, but notes that may not have made a difference.


“In this case, the people of Sonoma County are saying they're not ready to hold these people accountable,” he said.