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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 5:52 am | Light Rain Fog/Mist 60º


Former Santa Barbara County Jail Custody Deputies Acquitted by Federal Jury

Pair had been charged in 2013 alleged assault on jail inmate; 1 convicted on obstruction charge and both may still face local prosecution

Former Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Custody Deputies Christopher Johnson, left, and Robert Kirsch had maintained their innocence in a case involving an alleged assault on a County Jail inmate. After their acquittal on federal charges, Kirsch’s attorney, Bill Hadden, said the men “did exactly what they were trained to do.”
Former Santa Barbara County sheriff’s Custody Deputies Christopher Johnson, left, and Robert Kirsch had maintained their innocence in a case involving an alleged assault on a County Jail inmate. After their acquittal on federal charges, Kirsch’s attorney, Bill Hadden, said the men “did exactly what they were trained to do.” (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

Two former Santa Barbara County sheriff’s custody deputies have been acquitted by a federal jury after facing charges for allegedly assaulting an inmate in custody in the County Jail in 2013.

Christopher Johnson and Robert Kirsch were each charged by the District Attorney’s Office in August 2013 with assault by a public officer, a felony, stemming from an alleged attack on a jail inmate.

The case was turned over to the FBI, and a federal indictment charged the men with assaulting and beating Charles Alonzo Owens “under color of authority, the defendants being then and there public officers” on June 17, 2013.

Owens, 25, of Lompoc, had been in custody since 2011 on a variety of serious charges, including a 2007 gang-related killing in Lompoc, and a related case involving rape and witness intimidation.

In November 2013, he was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to serve life without parole at Folsom State Prison.

Last week, a U.S. District Court jury in Los Angeles voted 12-0 to acquit the former deputies of charges of aiding and abetting as well as deprivation of rights under color of law.

Johnson, however, was convicted by the jury for obstruction of justice, a charge that could carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

That charge stems from the allegation that he witnessed conduct by his partner that he failed to report to his supervisors.

The final sentence will be determined by U.S. District Court Judge Beverly Reid O’Connell at sentencing on Jan. 11.

The first federal trial against the former deputies occurred in June and ended in a hung jury, resulting in a mistrial.

A retrial began two weeks ago.

The week-long trial wrapped up Tuesday, and the jury took about a day to deliberate and issue its verdict.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Riordan, who prosecuted the second trial, said he respects the jury’s verdict.

“However, we also think the jury’s verdict in regard to defendant Johnson sends a message to law enforcement, at the state and local levels, that they cannot blindly overlook the conduct of their partners, or they will be held accountable,” he added.

A central part of the trial was a surveillance video that showed portions of the interactions between the two deputies and Owens as they moved the inmate to a safety cell in the jail.

The defense pointed out the poor quality of the video during the trial.

Bill Hadden, who represented Kirsch, said that the video doesn’t show everything that occurred. He added that it’s quite jumpy at places and has fewer frames than needed to fully show the incident in detail.

Owens was handcuffed at the time, but Hadden said an inmate can still cause significant injuries while handcuffed. The jury ultimately agreed, finding that the former deputies used legal force.

“They did exactly what they were trained to do,” Hadden said of the defendants.

At the beginning of the trial, O’Connell instructed the jury on self defense, and that the government was required to make its findings beyond a reasonable doubt, Hadden said.

Johnson’s attorneys, Michael Stone and Muna Busailah, did not respond to Noozhawk’s request for comment.

Santa Barbara County Deputy District Attorney Anthony Davis said the DA’s office will be discussing the case with federal prosecutors to determine what happens with the local case, which was set to start after the federal trial concluded.

He said there is still a preliminary hearing scheduled for Oct. 29 in Superior Court.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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