It was to be a landmark murder trial, held in a part of the state that’s traditionally given police officers the benefit of the doubt in even the most controversial use of force cases.
Now, just two weeks before it was scheduled to begin, a judge has granted former Washington County deputies Michael Howell, Rhett Scott and Henry Copeland immunity from prosecution. The three former lawmen, all white, were charged after they repeatedly used a Taser on 58-year-old Eurie Martin. The confrontation began when Martin, an African American, made a simple request for water on a hot July evening.
“The trial judge must evaluate the evidence from the perspective of an officer at the time and under the circumstances existing at the time in question,” wrote Senior Superior Court Judge H. Gibbs Flanders in his ruling granting immunity. “The defendants have shown by a preponderance of the evidence that they were justified in their actions based upon a reasonable belief that the force used in the seizure and arrest of Mr. Martin was reasonable under the circumstances.”
It is believed a white officer in Georgia has never been convicted of murder for killing a black man in the line of duty. Only one officer statewide has been convicted of murder this decade. He was black, as was the victim, killed by a Taser.
Middle Georgia Judicial Circuit District Attorney Hayward Altman said he had expected the immunity motions would be denied. Instead, the trial is on hold pending appeal to the state Supreme Court, where Altman said he is “very confident” Flanders’ ruling will be overturned.
Attorneys for the ex-cops successfully argued that Martin escalated the situation when he resisted arrest. Martin, who suffered from schizophrenia and lived in a group home in Milledgeville, was on his way to see relatives in Sandersville for his birthday — a 25-mile walk on a day where the heat index topped 100 degrees.
He was more than halfway there, in the town of Deepstep — best known as the birthplace of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad — when he walked up a homeowner’s driveway seeking refreshment. The man ordered him off his property and Martin left, “without any problem or confrontation,” Flanders noted in his ruling.
Despite that, the homeowner called 911 to report “a guy walking up and down the road here just walking in my yard, and I don’t know whether he’s crazy, drunk, or what … Think you need to check him out.”
“That’s the tragedy of this whole thing,” said attorney Mawuli Davis, who represents Martin’s relatives. “He had done nothing wrong.”
GBI investigators confirmed as much. They found Martin had committed no crimes in the minutes leading to his deadly confrontation with law enforcement.
Howell was the first deputy to make contact with Martin.
“He had an evil look in his eye like he didn’t want to talk to me or whatever,” the deputy testified. “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 following him in his squad car for more than two minutes. Copeland soon joined and both officers pursued him on foot.
Howell and Copeland told investigators, according to court documents, that Martin threw down a Coke can he was carrying and took a defensive stance, fists clenched. They said he also ignored their commands to place his hands behind his back. Dash cam footage then captured Howell instructing his colleague to “tase his (expletive).”
After about a minute of electrical shocks, Martin pulled the Taser prong from his arm, got up and walked away from the deputies. Howell and Copeland followed, ordering him to stop and get on the ground or risk being Tased again.
Copeland told investigators Martin swung at him with his fist but missed. When Scott arrived on the scene, the three deputies surrounded Martin who, the judge noted in his ruling, was “not physically aggressive, with his arms remaining by his side.”
Scott then fired his Taser at Martin’s back, causing him to flail around, in attempt to dislodge the instrument. The officers continue using the stun guns him and eventually cuff his right hand. But his left hand remained free and it posed a “potentially lethal threat,” the judge wrote, citing the deputies’ testimony.
The struggle lasted about three minutes, during which time Scott and Copeland’s Tasers were activated 11 times for a duration of 96 seconds. Much of the encounter was captured on video.
“Taken in the entirety the evidence shows Mr. Martin, by his physical strength and his reaction to being tased, was exceptionally difficult to bring under control throughout the events discussed above,” Flanders wrote.
Howell, Copeland and Scott insisted they followed their training. But John Durden, the GBI agent who had trained them earlier in 2017, testified at the immunity hearing that protocol allows for two tases, “then we move on and do something different.”
Martin died of respiratory duress. His final moments were caught on video.
Davis said Martin’s relatives were “extremely disappointed” with the ruling.
“I’m no longer surprised by anything when it comes to the judicial system’s treatment of people of color,” he said.
Pierce Blitch, lead attorney for the defense, did not respond to a request for comment.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.