Deputies Acquitted of Alleged Jail Beating

Video Didn't Tell the Whole Story, Defense Attorney Says

Robert Kirsch leaves a Santa Barbara courtroom after his August arraignment
Paul Wellman

A federal jury has acquitted two Santa Barbara jail guards of assault after surveillance video purported to show them beating a handcuffed inmate in June 2013. The three-day trial concluded Wednesday and marked the second round of prosecution in the case. A trial earlier this summer ended with a jury hung 9-3 in favor of guards Robert Kirsch and Christopher Johnson, who were fired shortly after the incident.

“I feel relieved,” said Kirsch, who’s maintained he did nothing wrong in subduing inmate Charles Owens as he was being transferred to another cell. Johnson, however, was found guilty of felony obstruction of justice for not including Kirsch’s use of force in his official report on the confrontation. He will be sentenced in January and faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, though will likely not be sentenced to the full term. “It’s hard to feel completely good about the outcome when your partner was convicted of a crime he did not commit,” said Kirsch.

Owens was being transferred to a different part of the jail for disciplinary reasons when the video shows Johnson suddenly take him to the ground. Prosecutors argued the takedown was unnecessary and that Kirsch delivered unwarranted kicks and knee strikes to Owens.

But the video — shot from a single camera 12 feet above the ground and 40 feet down a hallway — doesn’t tell the whole story, said Kirsch’s attorney, Bill Hadden, in an interview Thursday. Hadden said close, repeated viewings of the 15 seconds of struggle reveals neither man used excessive force to get Owens, who was kicking and resisting, under control. “What the deputies did was trained reaction,” he said, “not anything to do with excessive force.” Hadden noted that Owens suffered only a mild bruise in the struggle, and not even on the same side of his body that Kirsch was allegedly kneeing and kicking.

Hadden admitted the video doesn’t clearly show what took place. It was shot at a low frame rate and makes movements appear quicker and jerkier than they actually were. But after slowing it down and analyzing it frame by frame, the footage reveals the two deputies didn’t deliver the beating they were accusing of, he said.

“In my estimation,” Hadden summed up, “the [Santa Barbra] DA’s Office should have consulted a use-of-force expert. Had they done so, I don’t think they would have filed charges. … What happens in these cases is the government wants to jump to conclusions and get the monkey off its back so no one can say they didn’t act.” Throughout his career, Hadden has successfully represented a number of law enforcement officers in a variety high-profile cases, including the Rodney King case.

Kirsch and Johnson were federally indicted soon after Santa Barbara prosecutors viewed the surveillance footage and, for reasons still unclear, enlisted the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in their investigation. Supporters of Kirsch and Johnson claim the move was politically motivated.

Local assault charges are still pending against the pair, and the Santa Barbara DA’s Office says it will be speaking with federal authorities before deciding how to proceeded with its case. California penal code seems to suggest, however, that because the two men were acquitted at the federal level, they cannot now be tried at the state level. Federal officials were not immediately available for comment.

Owens was awaiting trial on rape and murder charges at the time of the incident. He has since been convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Owens has filed a civil lawsuit against Kirsch, Johnson, and the Sheriff’s Office over his alleged assault. That case is still pending. Kirsch intimated he may soon appeal his termination and petition the county for reinstatement.

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