Lawsuit says police caused asphyxiation death of naked man

·4 min read

ATLANTA (AP) — Police officers who encountered a naked man walking down a Georgia street repeatedly fired their stun guns at him and pinned him to the ground by kneeling and standing on him, ultimately and wrongfully causing his death, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the man's parents.

Fernando Octavio Rodriguez, 24, was walking home after attending the Imagine Festival, an electronic music event held at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, when officers responding to a 911 report of an unclothed man approached him shortly after 10 p.m. on Sept. 20, 2019.

Over the next 10 minutes officers stunned him at least 15 times and “pinned Fernando to the ground by kneeling and standing on Fernando’s back, neck, head, arms, and legs, thereby depriving Fernando of oxygen," the lawsuit says.

Rodriguez was unresponsive when paramedics arrived and he died at a hospital just over 48 hours later. A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide caused by “asphyxia due to physical restraint in prone position with compression of chest" and said his injuries occurred during “physical altercation with law enforcement,” the lawsuit says.

The officers violated Rodriguez's constitutional protections against the use of excessive and unreasonable force and wrongfully caused his death, the lawsuit says. It was filed Tuesday by Rodriguez's parents against Henry County, the city of Hampton, two county police officers and three city police officers.

Henry County spokeswoman Melissa Robinson said she couldn't comment on pending litigation. Hampton police referred a request for comment to the city manager, who did not immediately respond to a voicemail seeking comment Wednesday. A county police spokesman spokesman did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. Two of the city officers are still employed by the department, according to its website, and did not respond to emails sent to their department email addresses.

A police body camera video provided by Rodriguez's parents' lawyers shows Rodriguez walking down the middle of a street naked as an officer shouts at him to get on the ground at least 10 times. Rodriguez turns around twice but keeps walking. He yells something at the officers, but it's bleeped out on the video provided by the lawyers.

The officer then yells, “I'm gonna tase you,” and fires his stun gun, causing Rodriguez to fall to the ground.

After that, the officers are heard repeatedly telling him to roll over onto his stomach so they can help him and also threatening to stun him again. One tries to turn him over and calls him a “sweaty little hog.” Rodriguez is heard yelling whenever he's stunned and is seen trying to sit up and scooting away from the officers while lying on his back.

About six minutes after Rodriguez was first shot with a stun gun, the officers roll him over and handcuff him. They then pin him down with their feet and knees on different parts of his body and push his face into the road.

About 15 minutes after Rodriguez was first stunned, one of the officers says his pulse rate is “through the roof" and another officer asks Rodriguez if he's still breathing.

An officer says twice, “He's quit breathing.” Another says, “Are you serious?”

Even after they were aware that he was not breathing, they didn't stop to render aid as they should have, said Jess Johnson, a lawyer for Rodriguez’s parents.

Throughout the encounter, the officers are heard speculating that Rodriguez is on drugs. Johnson said he has not seen a toxicology report but he believes Rodriguez was under the influence of something and needed medical attention.

After the paramedics arrive, one asks, “Has he got a good chest rise?” One of the officers responds, “I have no idea, man. We got him to this point and we just didn't touch him no more.”

Paramedics later reported Rodriguez was “unresponsive, not breathing and pulseless” when they arrived, the lawsuit says. They put him on a stretcher and were able to revive him. But he died early on Sept. 23, 2019, at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where doctors said he was suffering from respiratory failure, renal failure, anoxic brain injury, cardiac arrest and acute blood loss anemia, the lawsuit says.

The officers violated Rodriguez's constitutional rights by stunning him and pinning him to the ground when he wasn't resisting or trying to evade arrest and by continuing to pin him to the ground after he became unresponsive and stopped breathing, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit asks for a jury trial and seeks unspecified damages and legal fees.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in to take over the case and a spokeswoman said the investigative file was submitted to the Henry County District Attorney in January 2020. A spokeswoman for District Attorney Darius Pattillo said the case remains under investigation by their office.

Kate Brumback, The Associated Press

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