Former Jail Guards Stand Trial for Alleged On-Camera Assault

Christopher Johnson and Robert Kirsch Appear in Federal Court, Face Prison Time

Christopher Johnson (left) and Robert Kirsch in Santa Barbara Superior Court
Paul Wellman

The trial is underway for two former Santa Barbara County Jail guards allegedly caught on camera assaulting an inmate.

Christopher Johnson and Robert Kirsch were indicted on federal excessive force and obstruction of justice charges last year shortly after the Sheriff’s Office concluded an internal investigation and fired the two from their custody deputy positions. Johnson and Kirsch, who face prison time if convicted, have pleaded not guilty. The trial began Tuesday in Los Angeles and is expected to conclude Thursday.

In their pre-trial memo, prosecutors say that on June 17, 2013, inmate Charles Owens and Johnson had an argument over Owens’s day room time. The verbal confrontation escalated to the point that Johnson decided to move Owens to a different holding cell. He was assisted by Kirsch. Owens reportedly continued to mouth-off at the deputies as they walked to another part of the jail.

As the three stood at the door of the holding cell waiting to be let in, federal officials claim, Johnson suddenly took a handcuffed Owens to the ground where he was repeatedly kicked and kneed by Kirsch. The entire incident was allegedly caught on the jail’s surveillance cameras. “In the video,” prosecutors wrote, “Owens appears to do nothing to justify the use of force.” Moreover, they wrote, Johnson completed an incident report that stated Owens physically resisted the deputies. Johnson also omitted from his report the kicks and knee strikes delivered by Kirsch.

Charles Alonzo Owens
Courtesy Photo

Shortly after, Owens complained of pain in his upper torso and said he was spitting up blood. Jail nurses treated him for inflammation to his left rib area. The next day, Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt, chief investigator of Santa Maria’s public defender office and president of the NAACP’s Santa Maria-Lompoc branch, brought an assault complaint to the District Attorney’s Office. A week later, Owens was taken to the hospital for an examination, and after a short stay was returned to jail.

At the time, Owens, a Lompoc gang member, was awaiting trial on rape and murder charges. He has since been convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. In May last year, he filed a lawsuit against the County of Santa Barbara over the alleged jail incident.

When they were fired, Johnson had worked as a corrections and custody officer in the Sheriff’s Office for eight years, and Kirsch for seven, plus another 14 months as a utility worker for the department. Their defense attorneys have not responded to recent requests for comment, but said in earlier interviews that their clients did nothing wrong.

Friends, family, and colleagues of the two men have claimed the case is political and retaliatory. Shortly before the incident, Kirsch filed a formal grievance about unsafe conditions at the jail and prompted an outside report that concluded staffing levels were dangerously low. The supporters have also stated that the pair used a reasonable amount of force to gain control of Owens after he ignored their commands, and that such tussles are a relatively routine occurrence at the jail.

Both Kirsch and Johnson also face local assault charges. The Santa Barbara District Attorney’s Office said it is waiting on the conclusion of the federal case before deciding how to proceed. Federal prosecutors say they expect to call 5-6 witnesses during the trial, including a jail nurse, sergeant, and use of force expert.


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