Two Gwinnett officers -- Michael Bongiovanni and Robert McDonald -- were fired after video surfaced of them punching and kicking an unarmed motorist during a traffic stop. (WSB)

Ex-Gwinnett cop portrayed as vigilante, scapegoat on Day 1 of trial

Two police officers appear in a video clip prosecutors are using as evidence in an excessive force case in Gwinnett County. One is on trial. The other is testifying for the prosecution.

In her opening statement Friday, prosecutor Charissa Henrich asked jurors to disregard the video showing Michael Bongiovanni punching and subduing a handcuffed motorist and to focus instead on Robert McDonald’s actions.

“This case is not about Michael Bongiovanni,” she said.

Both were fired from the Gwinnett County Police Department after the April 2017 incident, which attracted national headlines. The former officers are both white. Demetrius Hollins, who was charged with driving without a tag, obstruction of a police officer and possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, is black. The charges against Hollins were dropped.

Cell phone video shows Bongiovanni, a 19-year veteran of the Gwinnett police before he was fired, punching and tasing Hollins. McDonald, called as back up, can be seen stomping on Hollins’ face as he lay on the pavement.

“He was acting as a vigilante on Mr. Hollins trying to get his lick in,” Henrich said. “You do not get to do as a police officer what a civilian cannot do.”

Defense attorney Walt Britt told jurors that it was Bongiovanni who bloodied Hollins’ face, then tased him twice.

McDonald “did what he’s supposed to do. Did what he’s trained to do,” said Britt, disputing that his client stomped the suspect.

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 will testify against his former partner.

McDonald is charged with battery, violation of oath of office and aggravated assault and faces up to 26 years behind bars if convicted.

Britt wasted no time shifting blame to Bongiovanni, McDonald’s onetime mentor, saying the senior officer lied about what happened in his use of force report and “tried to throw (McDonald) under the bus.”

But McDonald, countered Henrich, was no innocent bystander.

“This man gets out off his squad car, runs up with his gun drawn and kicks (Hollins) in the head,” she said.

Witnesses described McDonald pressing his gun into Hollins’ flesh.

“You can see the skin moving,” Henrich said.

Truck driver Kenneth Dillard testified about the interaction he saw between McDonald and Hollins.

“After he stomps his face, he gets down, puts his knee in his neck with his weapon drawn to the back of his head and says, ‘I’ll blow your head off!’ ” Dillard testified. He said he posted the video he shot on Facebook because “it needed to be seen.”

Britt noted that Dillard left out details in his initial interview with police and challenged virtually all of Dillard’s account in a sometimes tense cross-examination.

But there was some consensus. Dillard agreed with Britt that Bongiovanni’s account of what happened that day was, in the defense attorney’s words “a complete and total fabrication.”

Bongiovanni isn’t the only witness the defense will seek to impugn. In his opening statement, Britt discussed Hollins’ Nov. 2018 arrest on charges he beat and robbed a former girlfriend. He was also arrested, in August 2016, on charges of obstructing an officer and possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana. The arresting officers were Bongiovanni and McDonald.

McDonald and Bongiovanni were often paired together on the Gwinnett Police Department’s Community Response Team. In his nearly two decades on the force, Bongiovanni logged 67 incidents in which he used force, many involving his Taser or his fists. McDonald, in his three years with the Gwinnett Police Department, was involved in four use-of-force cases — three of them while on patrol with Bongiovanni.

Retired Gwinnett Police Lt. Sandra Pryor testified Friday that she talked with both officers about their encounter with Hollins. She said Bongiovanni initially told her McDonald accidentally kicked him.

“How in the hell do you accidentally kick someone,” Pryor said she responded.

She testified that McDonald told her that because he was carrying his service weapon, he couldn’t use his hands to subdue Hollins.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Pryor said McDonald told her when she asked why he was carrying his firearm.

Testimony resumes Monday, with the state expected to wrap up its case by Tuesday. Britt indicated McDonald will testify in his defense.

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