Two former police officers from East Point, Ga. have been indicted on charges of murder in the April 2014 death of Gregory Towns, a 24-year-old unarmed black man who died after a stun gun was used on him while he was in handcuffs.
Former Cpl. Howard Weems and Sgt. Marcus Eberhart were indicted on charges of felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and several charges of violation of an oath by a public officer.
While the death was being investigated, Eberhart resigned and Weems was fired by the department, which has a policy prohibiting officers from using stun guns.
The two officers approached Towns as he left his mother’s apartment complex after allegedly having been involved in a domestic dispute. Towns ran, but was caught by officers after he tripped over a tree branch and fell. According to his family attorney, Towns then struggled to walk, tired from having fled. The officers handcuffed him and used a stun gun to prod him and keep him moving forward, the attorney said.
“He was handcuffed behind his back when this happened, he didn’t have a weapon, he wasn’t the fighting the officers. He was tasered because he was tired and not getting up fast enough,” said Chris Stewart, the Georgia attorney who has been working with Towns’s family. “It’s not just against the law, it’s inhumane. You don’t use a Taser like a cattle prod.”
Attorneys for the two officers could not be immediately reached for comment.
An autopsy report from the Fulton County medical examiner’s office lists the death as a homicide, citing the stun gun use by police, and says Towns died from “hypertensive cardiovascular disease exacerbated by physical exertion and conducted electrical stimulation.”
Towns’s family says that he was stunned at least 14 times by the two officers, while police documents say the officers’ stun guns were used less than five times. The City of East Point agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by Towns’s family for $1 million — the city’s insurance policy maximum.
In reports filed on the incident, both officers wrote that Towns was not complying with commands for him to keep moving and that their stun guns were used just several times in order to prompt him to comply.
Weems wrote in his report that he used his stun gun at least three times on Towns.
“Mr. Towns did not appear to have been affected by this officer’s taser,” Weems wrote in his incident report, adding that Towns did not request medical attention.
“Towns stated, ‘I’m tired!’ Towns did not state he was in pain or appear to be in any distress. Towns was very calm and disregarded commands that were given,” Eberhart wrote in his police report, obtained by the Washington Post. “I then removed the cartridge from my taser to drive stun Towns.”
Eberhart wrote that he stunned Towns at least two more times before the man fell again, into a creek bed, where Eberhart said he attempted to stun him again. Paramedics who arrived moments later told Eberhart that Towns did not have a pulse.
In a statement released Tuesday, current East Point Police Chief Tommy Gardner said that all of the city’s officers have been retrained on the department’s stun gun policies and use of force policies.
Police officers are rarely charged in relation to the death of suspects. Of more than 600 police shootings so far in 2015, just four of those shootings have led to charges. Officers in Baltimore also face charges related to the death of Freddie Gray, who died after being placed in the back of a police van.
But the charges for the two Georgia officers come amid a flurry of legal actions against police officers for on-duty deaths. On Monday, a former Fairfax County, Va., officer was charged with second-degree murder for fatally shooting an unarmed man who stood with his hands raised in the doorway of his home. Then, later on Tuesday, a judge in New Mexico ruled that two officers will face trial on murder charges for the 2014 shooting death of James Boyd, a homeless man.
“It’s rare nationally, and it’s definitely rare here in Georgia,” Stewart said. “The family is still in pain, but when we found out about charges there was a sense of relief that for once the entire system is working the way it should.”