By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A former Georgia policeman was sentenced to life in prison on Wednesday after being found guilty of murder earlier this month in the death of a suspect shocked repeatedly with a Taser while handcuffed.
Marcus Eberhart, who was a sergeant in the Atlanta suburb of East Point, did not speak after receiving his sentence. His co-defendant, former officer Howard Weems, was given a five-year sentence for lesser offenses, including involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.
Eberhart and Weems shocked Gregory Towns, 24, with Tasers more than a dozen times in April when he refused to walk to a patrol car as he was being taken into custody after a reported domestic dispute, prosecutors said.
Eberhart, dressed in a blue prison jumpsuit and wearing shackles, stood as Fulton County Superior Court Judge Henry Newkirk said: “There is only one sentence allowable under the law. I sentence you to life."
Police departments around the United States have faced numerous wrongful death civil lawsuits attributed to Tasers or use of the stun guns as part of an overall use of force by officers leading to a death. However, there have been few if any criminal murder convictions of an officer stemming directly from misuse of a Taser.
"There has never been a case with a Taser, in stun gun mode, that has caused a death," said Weems’ defense attorney, William McKenney. "This is unprecedented and we will appeal."
Weems told the court he was sorry about the incident.
"I know nothing I could say that would ever bring forgiveness to me," he said.
A grand jury indicted the two officers in August 2015 amid a heightened national debate over the use of lethal force by police, especially in confrontations with racial minorities. Towns and the two policemen charged in his death were black.
After collapsing several times and repeated stun gun jolts, Towns lapsed into unconsciousness and was pronounced dead a short time later, prosecutors said.
An autopsy found the direct cause of death was "electric stimulation" but also said Towns suffered from hypertensive cardiovascular disease at the time. Expert witnesses for the defense contended Towns was in ill health from an enlarged heart and high blood pressure, court records showed.
Aisel Smith, the mother of Towns' son Dylan, 3, told reporters outside court: "I’m going to try to let this all go, for the sake of my son."
(Writing by by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by David Gregorio and Bill Trott)