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‘Somebody Get on His Back with a Knee’: Lawsuit Claims Georgia Police Responsible for Asphyxiation Death of Man Officers Tased 15 Times, ‘Pinned’ to the Ground


Warning: you may find the video footage disturbing.

The family of a Georgia man who died after police officers tased him 15 times, sat on him, and kneeled on him during a September 20, 2019 arrest have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the officers involved, asserting that their negligence and excessive force were the cause of death.

Officers in Henry County found Fernando Octavio Rodriguez, a 24-year-old American citizen of Mexican descent, walking home from the “Imagine Fest” music festival in Hampton, Georgia just after 10 p.m. on Sept. 20, 2019. Body camera footage of the incident shows Rodriguez was walking in the middle of the road, naked, unarmed, and that he appeared to be in a very confused state, possibly due to drugs or alcohol.

Within one minute of the beginning of the video, an officer tased Rodriguez in the back as the man was walking away.

“Over the next ten minutes, officers from the City of Hampton Police Department and the Henry County Police Department deployed tasers into Fernando’s body at least 15 times,” the lawsuit stated. “During the last three times that Fernando was tased, Fernando was handcuffed and lying face down in the prone position.”

Throughout the arrest, several of the officers on scene also used their bodyweight to keep Rodriguez on the ground. They lawsuit alleged the officers failed to provide any assistance even after Rodriguez was rendered unresponsive.

“At approximately 10:18 p.m., the officers pinned Fernando to the ground by kneeling and standing on Fernando’s back, neck, head, arms, and legs, thereby depriving Fernando of oxygen,” the suit stated. “At approximately 10:27 p.m., officers noticed that Fernando was unresponsive and no longer breathing. Instead of rendering aid, or at least getting off Fernando’s body, officers continued to pin Fernando to the ground for more than two minutes until paramedics arrived. When paramedics arrived, Fernando was not breathing, and he had to be resuscitated on at least two occasions.”

Rodriguez died at the hospital on September 23, 2019 and a subsequent medical examiner’s report concluded that his death was a homicide. The report further found the cause of death to be “asphyxia due to a physical restraint in prone position with compression of chest.”

In the wake of the death of George Floyd, the officers’ discussions about the use of force and other remarks will likely be heavily scrutinized. A jury found in April 2021 that Floyd was murdered by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Video showed Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for several minutes during an arrest even as bystanders shouted that Floyd had become unresponsive amid the prone restraint.

A few minutes into the arrest of Rodriguez, an officer can be heard on the footage saying, “Somebody sit on him…somebody get on his back with a knee.” A minute later, one officer instructs another to “put weight on him,” and a third officer says that his feet were “starting to cramp” from standing on Rodriguez.

More than 10 minutes into the arrest, one officer joked that Rodriguez was “his first naked man,” sarcastically saying, “Welcome to Imagine Fest,” while another threatened, “Dude, if you bite me I’m gonna kick your teeth out.”

Another referred to Rodriguez as a “sweaty little hog.”

When an officer first suggests that Rodriguez had stopped breathing, another responded by alleging that he was “holding his breath.” After it was confirmed that he had “quit breathing,” the lawsuit said an officer joked that he “just didn’t want to have to beat the boy to death.” Another noted that the “Taser got him pretty good.”

When paramedics arrived and asked about Rodriguez’s state, one of the officers says, “I have no idea. We got him to this point and we just didn’t touch him no more.”

According to the lawsuit, an incident report showed that paramedics reported finding Rodriguez “unresponsive, not breathing and pulseless” by the time they arrived.

The suit was filed by Fernando’s surviving parents, Octavio Rodriguez Cira and Fabiola Merlos Martinez, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.

The lawsuit names as defendants: the City of Hampton, the County of Henry; Officers Gregory Bowlden, Mason Lewis, Marcus Stroud, Robert Butera, and Quinton Phillips. The suit alleges 11 counts, including violations of the Fourth Amendment, wrongful death, excessive force, negligence, failure to render aid, and more. Count III alleges Officers Stroud and Butera have supervisory liability, claiming they “directed their subordinates to act unlawfully or knew that their subordinates would act unlawfully.” The final count seeks attorneys fees and costs, claiming the “Defendants have been stubbornly litigious, have acted in bad faith, and have caused Plaintiffs unnecessary trouble and expense.”

Law&Crime reached out to the Henry County Police Department and the Rodriguez family’s attorney Page Pate for comment about the lawsuit.

Read the full lawsuit below.

Rodriguez Lawsuit by Law&Crime on Scribd

[image via Page Pate video screengrab]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.