A request for water leads to a fatal encounter with police

From left: Former deputy Rhett Scott, former deputy Michael Howell and former Sgt. Lee Copeland are the three Washington County officers who could face murder charges in the death of 58-year-old Euree Lee Martin. (Photos courtesy of WJBF-TV)

From left: Former deputy Rhett Scott, former deputy Michael Howell and former Sgt. Lee Copeland are the three Washington County officers who could face murder charges in the death of 58-year-old Euree Lee Martin. (Photos courtesy of WJBF-TV)

After walking at least a dozen miles on a hot summer night, 58-year-old Euree Martin asked a stranger for water.

Hardly an unusual request just south of Georgia’s gnat line, but the stranger thought otherwise, calling 911 to report a person acting suspiciously. Or as one civil rights activist later called it, “walking while black.”

Whatever the reason, that call to police set off a chain of events that ultimately led to Martin’s death and possible murder charges against the three white Washington County sheriff’s deputies — since fired — who used Tasers as they tried to arrest the unarmed man.

How it got to that point remains a mystery. Martin was not accused of any crime, according to to the GBI, which investigated the incident. Was there an altercation, as the deputies claimed, that prompted them to deploy their Tasers, shocking Martin repeatedly? Cell phone video shot by a passing motorist doesn't show the alleged confrontation, only the disturbing aftermath — Martin, face down on the ground, handcuffed, dying of respiratory distress.

“Mr. Martin, as far as we can establish, had done nothing wrong,” said Heyward Altman, district attorney for Georgia’s Middle Judicial Circuit, at a press conference last week announcing he will seek indictments against the former lawmen on charges including felony murder, involuntary manslaughter, false imprisonment and aggravated assault.

‘He was simply walking down the road’

Most people make it through their whole lives without walking 20 miles uninterrupted. Euree Martin had done it several times, leaving the group home in Milledgeville where he resided to visit relatives in Sandersville, usually unannounced.

Martin’s niece, Elaine Brown, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution her uncle had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20s. She described him as a “real nice guy,” quiet and non-confrontational.

“He usually only spoke when spoken to,” Brown said.

As dusk set in on July 7th, Martin was more than halfway to Sandersville, in Deepstep, a town with a population just north of 100 best known as the birthplace of the late Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad, when he stopped at a random house to ask for water.

Euree Lee Martin in an undated photo. Martin died after being stunned with Tasers by three Washington County sheriffs officers. (Photo courtesy of WJBF-TV)

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The homeowner shooed him away. Martin resumed the long walk to Sandersville. His sister, Helen Martin, told WRDW News that around the same time she received a call from a friend who lives in Deepstep saying she had seen her brother pass by.

Concerned, she called 911 “to let them know who he was, told them his birthday,” she said. “I also told them, asked them really could they go out and check on him. He couldn’t take care of himself really.”

Deputy Michael Howell, responding to the first 911 call by the homeowner, was the first to spot Martin.

“I pulled alongside the black male with my passenger window down and asked the male subject, ‘Are you OK, and what’s your name,’ Howell wrote in the incident report. “And he looked at me and asked, ‘Who are you?’ and he walked off … toward Sandersville.”

That’s where the narrative ends. Deputies Henry L. Copeland and Rhett Scott were next on the scene. But so far there’s nothing on the record — at least nothing that’s been made available to the public — about why they deployed their Tasers.

Familiar subplots emerge 

The cell phone video showing Martin’s death sparked outrage in Washington County, some two hours southeast of Atlanta. Reflecting the scarcity of prosecutions against police in use of force cases, activists unsuccessfully demanded the district attorney recuse himself due to his close working relationship with the sheriff’s department.

An AJC/Channel 2 analysis of fatal police shootings from 2010 through 2015 found that no officer had faced a criminal trial in more than 180 shootings. Since then, there’s been just two convictions for an incident that, coincidentally, involved a Taser. Two other officers were indicted for murder in 2016 but their cases have yet to go to trial.

“This is the 27th mass meeting that I’ve been to after the death of an unarmed African-American while I’ve been president of the state conference,” now-former Georgia NAAAP President Francys Johnson explained at a community meeting last July in Sandersville. “But if you make that mistake of going on about your business, next time it could be you.”

Johnson would eventually team with Atlanta attorney Mawuli Davis as legal counsel for Martin’s family. After Altman’s announcement both attorneys downplayed race as a major factor, citing no direct evidence, though many, including the victim’s family, believe otherwise.

“I think race played a very major role,” said Brown, Martin’s niece. “You see on the news all the time white men walking down the street carrying guns and nothing happens. My uncle wasn’t armed. He wasn’t hurting anyone. He wasn’t a threat.”

Davis told The AJC it doesn’t appear Martin’s schizophrenia figured into the deadly outcome, either. Whether the deputies had been trained to deal with the mentally ill — training that is not mandated by the state — is unknown.

Martin’s death also reignited a debate over Tasers, which Johnson said the NAACP opposed when Washington County adopted their use 10 years ago. Since 2010, at least 14 Georgians, including Martin, died following altercations with law enforcement that involved stun guns.

A recent investigation by Reuters found that at least 442 wrongful death suits — all but seven targeting police departments and the municipalities they serve — have been filed over fatalities that followed the use of a Taser. Almost all of those were filed since the stun guns began gaining widespread popularity with police in the early 2000s, according to Reuters.

Brown said her family is not counting on convictions of the deputies involved. Altman will make his case for indictments to a grand jury on Dec. 19.

“Nine times out of 10 that’s not going to happen,” she said, when asked about the possibility of convictions. “Justice for me would be better training for police. Justice would be de-escalation programs.”

And, she said, an infusion of basic human kindness.

“They assumed the worst,” Brown, said. “He’s walked 20 miles. He’s hot. He’s thirsty. Why didn’t they have some compassion and give him some water?”