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Georgia Court Reverses Lower Court’s Decision to Grant Immunity to Officers Involved In 2017 Killing of Black Man Who Asked for a Drink of Water

On Monday, Nov. 2, Georgia’s Supreme Court struck down a lower trial court’s ruling that three officers involved in the 2017 death of a Black man who had a mental illness should be immune from prosecution.

Eurie Lee Martin, 58, was killed by Washington County deputies in July 2017 after a homeowner called 911 when he asked for a drink of water.

The three deputies, Henry Lee Copeland, Michael Howell and Rhett Scott, were fired after Martin’s death, and were indicted for felony murder among other charges in August 2018.

Michael Howell (left), Lee Copeland (center), and Rhett Scott (right)/Source: Emanuel County Sheriff’s Office

The deputies filed a motion for immunity, claiming they acted in self-defense, which the trial court granted. The deputies were set to stand trial for Martin’s murder in November 2019.

Georgia’s highest court has reversed the motion in a unanimous decision.

“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,” wrote Georgia Supreme Court Justice Charlie Bethel.

He said the court conflated issues of reasonable use of force with self-defense and immunity. Bethel also said the trial court did not consider the three deputies individually in regards to whether they used force that was intended or likely to cause death.

On July 7, 2017, Martin was walking along the road about 100 miles outside of Atlanta, when he approached a driveway and asked the homeowner for a drink of water.

The homeowner refused due to Martin’s appearance, and ordered him off his property. He called 911 to report him, saying he didn’t know if Martin was “crazy, drunk, or what.” Martin, who lived in a group home at the time, suffered from schizophrenia. The homeowner did not mention that Martin had asked for a drink of water. The temperature had reached more than 100 degrees the day of the incident.

When Howell approached Martin, and called out from his patrol car, Martin said, “Who are you?” and kept walking.

Howell called for backup, and continued to pursue Martin with his patrol car lights flashing.

“He had an evil look in his eye like he didn’t want to talk to me or whatever. And my gut told me something was wrong and not to get out of the car. And I stayed in the car and the gentleman (Martin) kept walking,” Howell later testified.

Eurie Lee Martin (Family photo)

Copeland approached from the opposite direction and blocked Martin’s path. When Martin tried to cross the street, Copeland told him to get out of the road. Dashcam footage captured the encounter until Copeland and Martin walked out of frame. Howell joined them off-camera moments later. The deputies said Martin threw down the Coke can he had in his hand, and took a “defensive stance.”

Howell instructed Copeland to use his stun gun on Martin. Martin fell to the ground, removed the probes from his arm, stood back up, and walked away from the deputies.

Howell radioed for help from Scott, saying they had used the stun gun but Martin was “still fighting.”

Then, Scott, Howell and Copeland surrounded Martin. Scott lifted Martin’s shirt and deployed the stun gun on his back. As Martin fell to the ground, Howell and Copeland also deployed their stun guns at Martin.

In total, the stun guns were deployed 15 times within a period of four minutes and 17 seconds.

All of the deputies moved in at once to handcuff Martin, who was then left facedown on the ground before resuscitation measured were started.

When first responders arrived, they discovered that Martin did not have a pulse. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Georgia’s high court has sent the case back to the trial court, ordering it to determine if Howell’s initial observation of Martin walking amounted to the crime of walking on a highway. If Martin committed the crime, deputies had the right to detain him. If not, Martin had the right to resist arrest.

“Contrary to the trial court’s conclusion, however, the court’s express findings of fact and the recordings of the incident show that there was no legal basis to detain Martin for loitering at that time,” the opinion says. “There was simply no evidence that Martin, who was walking along a public road on a summer afternoon, was ‘in a place at a time or in a manner not usual for law-abiding individuals,” the court wrote.

The lower trial court must also determine whether deputies were justified in using deadly force against Martin, and evaluate each deputies’ actions individually.

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