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County defends decision
Sheriff: Deal 'was what was best for taxpayers'

LAWRENCEVILLE - County officials on Thursday backed a $100,000 settlement paid last year to the family of a 25-year-old man who died after he was shocked repeatedly with a Taser, calling the payment money well spent.

The county settled a wrongful-death lawsuit filed on behalf of Ray Charles Austin, a Gwinnett County Detention Center inmate who died in September 2003, said Gwinnett County attorney Karen Thomas.

The $100,000 payment was issued to Austin's family in late 2006, paid from county coffers, Thomas said. The settlement was intentionally kept quiet to discourage further lawsuits against the county and was handled correctly, Thomas said.

The settlement could save the county costly litigation expenses in the long run, she said.

"That's one of the factors that you consider - the cost of litigation," Thomas said.

Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said the county could have spent three times the settlement cost to defend itself in court.

"It basically came down to a business decision and what was best for taxpayers," Conway said. "By no means does that indicate that we'll settle another case."

Brian Spears, the attorney for Austin's family, did not return a phone call Thursday seeking comment.

Spears filed the lawsuit in September 2005 on behalf of Austin's two young children.

According to the lawsuit, deputies shocked Austin about six to eight times with a Taser stun gun after the inmate bit off a portion of a deputy's ear.

A second wrongful-death suit against Gwinnett County involving Tasers is still pending, Thomas said. Frederick Williams, 31, died in 2004 after struggling with Gwinnett County deputies. His case is still in discovery phases, Thomas said.

Thomas said no lawsuit has been filed in the case of Carlos Rodriguez, a 27-year-old Norcross man who died in July after he was shocked with Tasers.

Medical examiners have not linked Rodriguez's death to the Tasers deployed to keep him from attacking deputies at a Norcross apartment complex.

Sheriff Conway said settlements that stem from death cases won't be publicized anytime soon.

"You don't want people to file lawsuits thinking they'll automatically get money from the county, because that's not the case," Conway said.