A Georgia Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the three Washington County sheriff’s deputies who were indicted for the death of Eurie Lee Martin will not be entitled to immunity.
Former officers, Michael Howell, Henry Lee Copeland, and Rhett Scott were fired and indicted on murder charges after the death of 58-year-old Eurie Martin in 2017. Martin died of asphyxiation after the officers tased him 15 times in 4 minutes and 17 seconds.
The encounter between the officers and Martin was captured on dashboard camera and on the cell phone of a passerby.
On July 7, 2017, Martin was walking 25 miles from his home in Milledgeville to a friend’s birthday party in Sandersville. According to Francys Johnson, a lawyer representing the Martin family, Martin suffered from mental illness and distrusted automobiles so he preferred to walk wherever he needed to go.
According to court documents, Martin stopped at a house along the way and asked a man in the front yard if he could have some water to fill a cut-off soda can he was carrying. The man told him no and called 911, saying Martin seemed suspicious and he didn’t know if Martin was “crazy, drunk, or what.” The homeowner neglected to mention that Martin had asked for water.
As Martin continued his walk down Deepstep Road, Officer Howell arrived in his vehicle and called to him, ordering him to stop.
Martin continued to walk, telling the officer, “Leave me alone. I ain’t did nothing.”
Howell radioed for backup and continued to follow behind Martin in his car. Within a few minutes, Officer Copeland arrived as back up. Approaching from the other direction, Copeland blocked Martin’s path with his vehicle. Martin crossed the road to avoid the officers and continued to ignore their request for him to stop and talk.
The officers said Martin threw down the soda can he was carrying and took a “defensive stance,” against them, however, Martin and the officers were out of view of the dash camera when they claim this happened.
The two deputies repeatedly shot Martin with their Tasers, with at least 15 recorded applications of electricity during a span of 4 minutes 17 seconds. Copeland called officer Scott for more help, telling him they had tased Martin and he had “kept fighting.”
The officers pinned Martin to the ground and handcuffed him, leaving him face down. According to Johnson, Martin begged for his life and suffocated before paramedics arrived.
In August 2018, the deputies were indicted on felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment, aggravated assault, simple assault, and reckless conduct. However, they were granted immunity by a judge citing a law that states police officers acting in self-defense while making a lawful arrest could not be prosecuted.
On Monday, the State Supreme Court overturned the judge’s decision to grant the officers immunity, which sends the case back to the trial court and means the three officers will most likely face the same charges again.
In his opinion for the court, Justice Bethel wrote, “We determine that, in granting immunity, the trial court made findings of material fact that were inconsistent with its legal conclusions regarding the deputies’ encounter with Martin, conflated principles regarding the reasonable use of force by law enforcement with self-defense and immunity, made unclear findings of material fact with respect to whether any or all of the deputies used force intended or likely to cause death, and did not address the facts pertinent to each of the three deputies individually.”
He continued, “For these reasons, we vacate the trial court’s ruling and remand the cases for further consideration consistent with this opinion.”
“There are not many examples of white officers being held accountable for malfeasance and criminal conduct where the victim is Black or brown,” Johnson said. “What is typical is that there are excuses made. Any reason is enough and justification for the taking of a Black life.”
“And it is absolutely amazing to see a different narrative be written,” he added, “not in some urban progressive area, but in rural Georgia.”