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5 Georgia officers indicted on murder charges in festivalgoer's death

Fernando Rodriguez, 24, was walking nude on a road near Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2019 when officers confronted him.
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Five Georgia officers have been indicted on murder charges in the asphyxiation death of a festivalgoer near Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2019, prosecutors said Friday.

Fernando Rodriguez, 24, was naked and walking on a road after attending the Imagine Music Festival at the track in Hampton, Georgia, on Sept. 20, 2019, when the officers confronted him, used a stun gun and then piled on, according to the Henry County District Attorney's Office and edited body-camera video.

He died at a hospital days later, and a state medical examiner ruled his death homicide by asphyxiation.

After two days of testimony, a county grand jury returned an indictment for each of the five officers Friday on one count of malice murder, two counts of felony murder and one count of aggravated assault, the DA's office said.

The grand jury also charged each officer with one count of violation of oath office, according to the DA's office.

They were identified as Henry County police officers Robert Butera and Quinton Phillips, and Hampton police officers Marcus Stroud, Gregory Bowlden and Mason Lewis.

Stroud resigned from the department Oct. 16, 2019, and Bowlden and Lewis resigned this year on Aug. 5, Hampton City Manager Alex Cohilas said. The status of the county officers was not clear. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in May that they were still employed as police.

The indicted officers could not be reached through law enforcement organizations, and their departments did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Arrest warrants for the officers were likely to be issued next week, the DA’s office said.

Cohilas said by email that the city of Hampton was cooperating with the district attorney, and added: "In light of the indictments and ongoing criminal litigation into this matter, the City will not be commenting further at this time."

The speedway is in Hampton, in the southeastern metro Atlanta area that is a part of Henry County.

Page A. Pate, an attorney for Rodriguez's family, said in a statement Saturday that his survivors were pleased with the indictment.

"Fernando’s family has been patiently waiting for justice in this case and they are very glad to see that the process is now moving forward," Pate said. "We are especially grateful that the officers have all been charged with murder and we think the charges fit the crime."

The DA’s office said the officers violated their oath “by stretching Rodriguez out on the ground in a prone position while he was handcuffed and shackled, holding him down and applying pressure to his body.”

He was also subjected to more than a dozen stun-gun shocks, prosecutors said.

Rodriguez was leaving the electronic dance music festival when the confrontation happened, prosecutors said.

It’s not clear why Rodriguez was naked. Lawyers for his family have said he was in need of medical attention before police reached him.

Image: Fernando Rodriguez is tasered by Hampton County police officers in 2019.
Fernando Rodriguez is tasered by Hampton County police officers in 2019.Pate, Johnson & Church Law Firm

Edited body camera video of the confrontation provided by lawyers for Rodriguez's family show an officer using a stun gun aimed at his back as he walked away from police.

An officer threatened to kick his teeth as he was on the ground, according to the recording.

The video also shows the man groaning on the ground. Officers can be seen using stun-guns when Rodriguez didn't immediately respond to orders, including commands to lie on his stomach.

"I just didn't want to have to beat the boy to death," one of the officers is heard saying.

A federal wrongful death lawsuit alleged that one of the officers called Rodriguez a "sweaty little hog."

The complaint, filed May 11, says "officers failed to render aid and continued to pin Fernando to the ground" for nearly four minutes after he became "totally unresponsive."

It says Rodriguez was "noncombative" throughout the confrontation, and alleged the defendants violated his constitutional rights to due process and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The suit names the officers, the city of Hampton and Henry County. Pate and partner Jess B. Johnson filed the complaint in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on behalf of the Rodriguez's parents, Octavio Rodriguez Cira and Fabiola Merlos Martinez, and his sibling Octavio Rodriguez.

The county did not respond to a request for comment regarding the litigation. The city of Hampton reached a settlement with the plaintiffs on July 19, Cohilas said.

Pate said the settlement amount was $3 million.

Rodriguez's death was investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.