Thursday, September 20 , 2018, 5:46 pm | Fair 72º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Advice

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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made using a credit card, Apple Pay or Google Pay, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Email
Select your monthly membership
Or choose an annual membership
×

Payment Information

Membership Subscription

You are enrolling in . Thank you for joining the Hawks Club.

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.
You may cancel your membership at any time by sending an email to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >