Santa Barbara County settled an excessive force lawsuit filed by Charles Owens, a former jail inmate convicted on rape and murder charges, for $60,000. Owens alleged he’d been thrown face-first to the ground and beaten while his hands were cuffed behind his back by jail custodial officers Christopher Johnson and Robert Kirsch on June 17, 2013, after a verbal altercation escalated.
Sheriff Bill Brown fired both deputies shortly after the incident and the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles brought Johnson and Kirsch up on charges twice for excessive force and obstruction of justice. The first trial ended with a hung jury; in the second, the two deputies were found not guilty of excessive, but Johnson was convicted of obstruction of justice in September. In December, U.S. assistant attorney Bruce Riordan argued for prison time, but a federal judge opted to sentence Johnson to three years’ probation instead.
Owens sued the County of Santa Barbara, filing nine separate charges. The two deputies who allegedly beat him sued the county as well. They complained the county government should have defended them and they should not have had to obtain independent counsel. In the same settlement deal, the County of Santa Barbara agreed to pay Kirsch $27,000 and Johnson $25,000. In closed session, the board of supervisors voted 5-to-0 on December 15 to authorize the settlement, the terms of which were finally announced this past week.
At the time of the incident, Owens — a Lompoc gang member — was awaiting trial on rape and murder charges and had been in County Jail since 2011. In his filing papers, Owens claimed he aroused the ire of Johnson by pushing the call button in his cell to ask when he’d be allowed to visit the day room. Johnson told Owens not to push the call button again and words were exchanged. Johnson allegedly threatened to rough Owens up. “Not without backup,” Owens reportedly replied.
Johnson showed up to Owens cell with Kirsch and the exchange of unpleasantries escalated. At some point, Johnson cuffed Owens, who charged Johnson pushed him into a door. “That was some coward ass shit,” Owens reportedly said. At that point, Owens alleged Johnson spun him around and threw him face first to the ground. Kirsch then executed a knee drop onto Owens. Kirsch reportedly kneed Owens several times. Afterwards, Owens complained, Johnson and Kirsch placed him into a safety cell — otherwise known as a “rubber room” — for 15 hours. Owens claimed he sustained damage to his ribs and that the incident caused him to spit up blood. Only eight days after the incident, he claimed, was he taken to the jail hospital.
Although the whole incident was caught on a jail video camera located 40 feet away, Johnson never mentioned Kirsch kneeing Owens in his incident report. During the federal excessive force trial, Kirsch’s attorney noted that the video camera was set to record at slow speeds. This made the action recorded seem faster and more violent when played back at normal speeds. In addition, he argued, the video failed to convey the extent to which Owens resisted. Based on this, a federal jury acquitted the two of excessive force. Johnson, however, was convicted of obstruction of justice for omitting key details of what happened.
The county’s settlement occurred after the two deputies were found not guilty, but before Johnson was sentenced for obstruction of justice.