Family sues Georgia police after death in custody

AP News
Posted: Aug 29, 2014 9:55 AM

ATLANTA (AP) — The family of a man who died after Atlanta-area police used stun guns on him has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the former officers and the city, the family's lawyer said.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Fulton County Superior Court, says East Point police officers used their stun guns as many as 13 times on Gregory Towns Jr. while he was handcuffed. The lawsuit claims former police sergeant Marcus Eberhart and former corporal Howard Weems used excessive force in the April 11 incident.

"It's just heinous," attorney Chris Stewart told The Associated Press in a phone interview Thursday. "This isn't one of those cases where he punched an officer and they had to Taser him to calm him down."

The lawsuit comes amid increased attention on police use of force in the wake of the fatal shooting in of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Following that shooting, local police in Ferguson donned riot gear and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who refused to disperse and, at times, broke into nearby businesses.

While many police officers use their authority appropriately, there are some who view any act of disobedience as a call for extreme action, Stewart said.

"In our case, it wasn't about color, obviously, because the officers were black," Stewart said. "It was about power. He didn't walk when they said walk. He didn't stand when they said stand. And he didn't move fast enough when they said move."

Calls to a number listed for Eberhart seeking comment went unanswered. Weems referred questions to his lawyer, Dale Preiser, who declined to comment. East Point acting city attorney Brad Bowman said the city doesn't comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit describes the family's version of events when police confronted Towns, 24.

Officers approached Towns as he was leaving his son's mother's apartment complex after having a domestic dispute with her, the lawsuit says. When officers approached and asked to talk to him, he ran away and officers caught up with him after he tripped over a tree branch and fell.

Officers handcuffed Towns and ordered him to get up and walk to a patrol car, but Towns said he was too tired from running. Weems threated to use his stun gun on Towns if he did not get up, the lawsuit says. Towns got up but soon fell over again, telling officers he was tired.

Stun gun logs Stewart said he obtained from the police department show the officers then used their stun guns on Towns as many as 13 times in a 30 minute period, though the police report indicates the stun gun was used fewer than five times, Stewart said.

Weems and Eberhart violated the department's stun gun policy, which says stun guns should not be used on someone who's handcuffed, should not be used to escort or prod someone and should not be used on someone who's offering only passive resistance, the lawsuit says.

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An autopsy report from the Fulton County medical examiner's office says Towns died from "hypertensive cardiovascular disease exacerbated by physical exertion and conducted electrical stimulation." The report lists the manner of death as a homicide and cites stun gun use by police.

Eberhart resigned and Weems was fired and is in the process of appealing his termination, East Point spokeswoman Renita Shelton said.

The East Point police department, under the direction of former chief Woodrow Blue who resigned earlier this month, acted admirably in the wake of Towns' shooting, Stewart said. Immediate action was taken and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in right away to review the circumstances surrounding the shooting. Unlike in Ferguson, the community in East Point felt that the situation was immediately addressed and handled appropriately, Stewart said.

The GBI has completed a report on the case and turned it over to the office of Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who will decide whether to present the case to a grand jury, Stewart said. Howard's office is still investigating, spokeswoman Yvette Jones said.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Towns' estate and his infant son, seeks compensatory and punitive damages.