A federal grand jury has indicted two recently fired Santa Barbara County Jail guards on multiple felony charges after an FBI investigation was launched into allegations that an inmate was handcuffed and forced to the ground where he was kneed and kicked during an unprovoked confrontation last summer. (Read more on the guards’ terminations here.)
The indictment was filed Thursday, and both Christopher Johnson and Robert Kirsch appeared in a Central District court in Los Angeles on Friday. After a short hearing, they were each released on $25,000 bond, and their next court date is April 18.
The indictment claims that Johnson and Kirsch, “acting under color of law,” violated inmate Charles Owens’s civil rights when they allegedly assaulted him on June 17. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Johnson is also charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly filing a false report with his jail supervisor, stating that Owens — a Lompoc gang member who has since been sentenced to life in prison without parole on murder and sex crimes convictions but was in County Jail at the time awaiting trial — was only handcuffed and taken to the ground when he physically resisted the deputies. The obstruction charge has a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
A week after the alleged assault, Owens began complaining of pain in his upper torso and was transported to an area hospital for examination. He was returned to jail shortly after, and the extent of his reported injuries have not been made public by law enforcement officials out of concern for health privacy laws. According to sources familiar with jail operations, Owens was frequently resistant to deputies’ orders, and he was not allowed in the courtroom for his sentencing hearing because of threats he reportedly made to the prosecutor in his case.
It’s unclear how the federal charges against Johnson and Kirsch will affect the pending assault charges filed by the Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office last August. Johnson and Kirsch pleaded not guilty to the counts, but their case has not progressed past the arraignment stage. Prosecutor Anthony Davis said no decision has been made by his office on how to proceed. “I will be meeting with my supervisors to discuss the future of our case at the local level,” he explained in an email.
Supporters of Johnson and Kirsch claim the men did nothing wrong in their handling of Owens, and that they used a reasonable amount of force to gain control of Owens after he ignored commands during a routine cell transfer and became combative. Multiple sources told The Santa Barbara Independent that they have watched surveillance footage of the incident, and while they admit that Kirsch delivered three knee strikes to Owens’s legs during the struggle, they maintain the strikes were appropriate and necessary to bring the situation under control. Additionally, they state, two CHP officers witnessed the incident and have testified that they didn’t feel the deputies were guilty of any wrongdoing.
Attorneys for Kirsch and Johnson did not return requests for comment.