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Former Gwinnett cop found guilty of excessive force

County police officer Robert McDonald sits next to his attorney Walt Britt during his trial at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration building in Lawrenceville, February 4, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
County police officer Robert McDonald sits next to his attorney Walt Britt during his trial at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration building in Lawrenceville, February 4, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Former Gwinnett County police officer Robert McDonald bowed his head as the verdicts were read aloud. Guilty on all charges.

McDonald, captured on cellphone video stomping a handcuffed motorist following an April 2017 traffic stop, was convicted on charges of aggravated assault, battery and violation of oath of office. The prosecution used the video footage repeatedly throughout the trial, including versions played at slow motion.

“The playing of slowdown video was excessively harmful and prejudicial in this case,” said Walt Britt, McDonald’s attorney.

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Jurors, unable to reach consensus on the aggravated assault charge in their second day of deliberations, asked to view the video again late Thursday afternoon. Within 30 minutes they emerged in unanimity.

Sentencing is expected in about two weeks. McDonald, 28, was released until then. He has no prior criminal record and faces up to 26 years in prison. The minimum penalty for aggravated assault is one year in prison.

Britt said his client had held out hope for acquittal and was devastated by the verdict.

Former Gwinnett County officer Robert McDonald in court last week. Video feed from trial.
Former Gwinnett County officer Robert McDonald in court last week. Video feed from trial.

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McDonald was fired from the Gwinnett County Police Department following the 2017 incident, as was his one-time mentor, former Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni. Bongiovanni pleaded no contest last year to aggravated assault and battery charges and was sentenced to six months on a work release program and five months of home confinement. He avoided jail time and testified for the prosecution.

When McDonald responded as backup to the intersection of Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road and Sugarloaf Parkway three years ago, motorist Demetrius Hollins was on the ground, handcuffed. Bongiovanni had struck Hollins and used his Taser on him by the time McDonald arrived.

McDonald, who testified that he viewed Hollins as a threat because he had rolled over on his side, can be seen on the video stomping on his head.

“This man gets out off his squad car, runs up with his gun drawn and kicks (Hollins) in the head,” lead prosecutor Charissa Henrich told jurors.

While questioning McDonald on the stand, she asked, ““You see someone turning to you and your training tells you to kick him in the head?”

Traffic charges against Hollins associated with the stop were dropped.

The defense repeatedly tried to convince jurors that the wrong cop was on trial; Bongiovanni had used force 67 times in his 19-year career on the force.

“(Bongiovanni) would’ve said or done anything,” Britt said in his closing argument. “He violated his oath of office. He lied in his reports. He lied to the district attorney’s office. You can’t base a verdict on anything that man said.”

Britt, who plans to file an appeal, told reporters Thursday that McDonald also had been offered a deal, one he never considered.

“The state’s sole offer in this case, which was repugnant, was 10 (years in prison) to do three, based on what they sold out to Bongiovanni,” he said. “The district attorney should be ashamed of himself.”