The former Gwinnett County police officers charged in a controversial traffic stop involving a bloodied motorist were indicted Wednesday by a grand jury — and one of the officers is already trying to distance himself from the other.
Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni and Master Officer Robert McDonald, who are both accused of physically assaulting the motorist, are now facing criminal charges ranging from violation of oath of office and battery to aggravated assault. The latter carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Bongiovanni’s attorney, Mike Puglise, sounded a defiant tone Wednesday afternoon, vowing to fight the charges.
“The gates of the Colosseum are open wide,” he said, “and the crucifixion begins against these police officers.”
McDonald’s attorney, meanwhile, argued that his client’s actions were merely a result of his training — and that McDonald should not be lumped in with his former commander.
“His involvement in this matter was very brief and should be considered separate and distinct from any acts of Sgt. Bongiovanni before my client’s arrival on the scene or his subsequent acts in any reports,” attorney Walt Britt wrote in an emailed statement. “To that end, we will be seeking a separate trial.”
Bongiovanni and McDonald were both fired and arrested after being caught on video striking 21-year-old Demetrius Hollins during an April 12 traffic stop near Sugarloaf Parkway and Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road.
One bystander cellphone video of the incident showed Bongiovanni using his forearm or elbow to strike Hollins in the head while he stood outside his vehicle with both hands up. A separate cellphone video showed McDonald arriving at the scene and, with Hollins already lying on the ground and handcuffed, kicked Hollins in the head.
Holins had been stopped because he had no license plate and changed lanes without signaling.
Both officers were fired shortly after the videos surfaced on social media on the day after the traffic stop. They were later charged with battery and violation of oath by public officer.
Wednesday’s indictment included a total of 10 counts.
In all, Bongiovanni now faces eight charges and McDonald faces three. Both are charged with aggravated assault, the most serious offense.
McDonald is accused of pointing his firearm at Hollins’ head during the traffic stop. Bongiovanni is charged with the same crime because he was present when it happened, authorities have said.
The indictment also accused Bongiovanni, who had been with GCPD since 1998, of unnecessarily Tasering Hollins and of lying in his official accounts of the incident.
District Attorney Danny Porter previously said that Bongiovanni claimed he was in a “higher defensive posture” during the traffic stop because he recalled a previous encounter with Hollins. But, during the investigation, a witness said Bongiovanni admitted he had not remembered that encounter before looking it up later, Porter said earlier this month.
Attorney Justin D. Miller, who represents Hollins, called the indictment a “step in the right direction.”
“We are definitely heartened that they did come back” with an indictment, he said.
Assistant District Attorney Charissa Henrich presented the case to the grand jury on Wednesday. She declined to comment.
An indictment is a more formal set of charges handed up — or shot down — by a grand jury following a hearing in which a prosecutor presents part of the state’s evidence.
Under a new Georgia law passed in 2016, police officers facing criminal charges are subject to cross-examination if they choose to testify during grand jury proceedings. They are also barred from observing the remainder of the grand jury process, a unique privilege they had previously been granted.
Neither Bongiovanni nor McDonald testified Wednesday.
Britt, who represents McDonald, sent a letter to the district attorney’s office earlier this month that called the new procedures unconstitutional. After the indictment was filed, Britt issued another statement, this one saying he would file an “immunity motion” arguing that McDonald’s actions were reasonable given his training and the situation.
“… [H]e reacted appropriately to a scene that he was dispatched to under an emergency code,” Britt wrote.
Puglise, Bongiovanni’s attorney and a former police officer, said his client will enter a not guilty plea when the time comes. He called Bongiovanni a “good man” who is now “paying for his dedication.”
“It saddens me,” he said. “The public has a right to know what these police officers go through. Being a former police officer, it’s a tough job. And we put a lot of requirements on these guys and a lot of stresses on these guys. When it comes to split-second decisions, reactions, all this gets factored in.”