The trial of former Gwinnett County police officer Robert McDonald is in recess until Tuesday morning, which is when the jury will get to hear McDonald testify in his own defense.
On Friday, prosecutors rested their case against McDonald for allegedly using excessive force on Demetrius Hollins during a traffic stop on April 12, 2017.
After a 45-minute break taken to discuss McDonald’s decision, his attorney, Walt Britt, said he had explained to McDonald that if he chose to testify, he would be subject to cross examination by the prosecutors on the case just like any other witness.
McDonald raised his hand and swore to “tell the truth and nothing but the truth.”
“The decision has to be yours and yours alone,” Judge Howard E. Cook said. “Your lawyer can advise you on what your rights are and what the law is and can give you other legal advice, but in the end it has to be your decision that’s been made by you independent of all that. … What is your decision?”
“I will testify,” McDonald said.
The court will reconvene Tuesday at 9 a.m., when McDonald will take the stand as the first witness of the day.
McDonald is facing three charges – aggravated assault, battery and felony violation of oath by public officer.
Britt made a motion on Friday for acquittal of the felony violation of oath by public officer charge on the basis that the state had not proven that the departmental oath they cited in the indictment was required by law, but was denied by Cook.
The jury also heard Gwinnett County Police Department Cpl. Larry Williams testify, during which he read the use of force report McDonald filed on the 2017 traffic stop.
In the report, McDonald said he arrived on the scene within seconds of his former partner and mentor, former Sgt. Michael Bongiovanni, saying he was in a fight. McDonald said he arrived with his pistol drawn because he did not know what type of situation he was approaching.
“Sgt. Bongiovanni was winded and not able to let me know what was going on,” McDonald said in the report. “Fearing the suspect was attempting to get up and continue to fight, I was going to attempt to use my foot to push the suspect’s shoulders back onto the ground so he would be flat on his stomach.
“As I raised my foot, I delivered one strike to the suspect’s shoulder area but missed and struck his face with my foot. At that point, the suspect rolled from his side and back onto his stomach. Sgt. Bongiovanni then was able to tell me that he was OK, and the suspect was handcuffed. At that point, I was able to see the suspect’s hands and see that he was handcuffed. I could not tell at any point until then that the suspect was cuffed due to his bulky clothing and the way he was positioned.”
McDonald listed in the report “diversionary tactics” as the reason for his use of force.
Sgt. Kevin Berardinelli, who also took the stand Friday, said he trained McDonald and reached out to him after the incident took place on April 12, 2017 through Instagram, because “each instructor that trains a class has invested interest in every recruit that comes out of that door.”
Berardinelli said McDonald had posted something about fishing. Since he had heard about the “drama” and the things that were being said about McDonald and Bongiovanni, Berardinelli said he told McDonald he “had his back in that sense and asked how fishing was.”
Berardinelli said McDonald was a “model student in the academy environment,” had no issues during training and had about a 94 grade point average with testing.
“During the 23 weeks with McDonald and seeing how he progressed throughout the academy and seeing how he did on the road and going to a specialized unit after so many years, I just thought he was a good guy and people started talking crap about him and Bongi and I squashed it,” Berardinelli said.
“Just because somebody’ made a mistake or done something and they’re in the limelight, doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. I felt bad, and I wanted to reach out to him making sure that he knew that I was his instructor (and) I still liked him and I respect him as a person.”
Earlier this week, Bongiovanni testified against McDonald, saying he saw him “deliver a downward strike near the shoulder area of the suspect with his foot.”
Hollins said he was not resisting arrest when he was allegedly punched, tased and had a gun pointed at his head during the arrest, though not all of that appeared in the officers’ police reports, which were found to have inconsistencies. The entirety of what happened was only known after videos of the incident appeared on social media.
Bongiovanni pleaded no contest to aggravated assault and battery last summer and reached a plea deal so that he would spend six months in Gwinnett’s work-release program, five months home confinement and the rest of his 10-year sentence on probation instead of jail time if he testified against McDonald.
Bongiovanni said this week he took the plea deal because it was in the “best interest” of his family.
While McDonald has maintained his innocence, if convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of 26 years in prison.