Words of relief as trial awaits 3 Georgia cops in 2017 Taser death

From left: Former Washington County deputies Rhett Scott, Michael Howell and former Copeland await trial on murder charges in the death of 58-year-old Euree Lee Martin. (credit: WJBF)
From left: Former Washington County deputies Rhett Scott, Michael Howell and former Copeland await trial on murder charges in the death of 58-year-old Euree Lee Martin. (credit: WJBF)

Credit: WJBF

Credit: WJBF

Eurie Martin broke no laws on July 7, 2017, as he walked down Deepstep Road in Sandersville, a conclusion shared by GBI investigators and Georgia Supreme Court justices who reviewed the evidence. Footage from police dashcams and body cams showing the 58-year-old unarmed Black man’s final minutes alive confirms it.

That video, says attorney Mawuli Davis, co-counsel for Martin’s family members, proved crucial in the state high court’s decision two weeks ago to rescind immunity for the three white Washington County deputies who used their Tasers repeatedly on Martin. He died of respiratory distress.

The video “speaks volumes about Mr. Martin’s mindset,” Davis said Tuesday in his first comments since the Nov. 2 state Supreme Court ruling. “That he was terrified. That it was torture for him and there was no justification whatsoever.”

The murder trial of fired deputies Henry Lee Copeland, Rhett Scott and Michael Howell is expected to take place sometime next summer. It was initially to have taken place about a year ago. But a November 2019 immunity ruling by Superior Court Judge H. Gibbs Flanders slammed on the brakes, sparking outrage and frustration in Washington County, where African American residents make up 52% of the county’s population of 21,187.

“The community has never been more engaged,” said Quentin Howell in a recent interview. Howell, a spokesman for local chapters of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), said demonstrations continued throughout the year leading up to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

For Martin’s family, Flanders’ decision was soul-crushing.

“I did not have any faith in the justice system at all,” Helen Gilbert, Martin’s sister, said Tuesday in her first public comments since the cops’ immunity was thrown out.

Martin family co-counsel Francys Johnson said Flanders’ ruling gave the ex-deputies a kind of super-immunity by fusing two controversial state laws.

The judge “sought to bootstrap the traditional immunities granted to law enforcement officers, what we call qualified immunity, with the additional immunity benefits of stand your ground,” Johnson said.

ExploreA request for water leads to a fatal encounter with police

In their unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court justices determined neither legal protection was warranted. And they said some of Flanders’ findings contradicted the dashcam video, such as the lower court judge’s conclusion that the deputies’ response was justified because Martin may have been guilty of loitering or walking on a highway.

The justices said Martin was guilty of nothing. They also said that even though Martin had assumed a defensive stance, throwing down his Coke can and clenching his fists, “such behavior would be consistent with his right to decline any contact from the police at that point in the encounter.”

The deputies had been called to Deepstep Road by a nearby resident who had refused Martin’s request for water on a day that the heat index topped 100 degrees. Based on that call, the deputies were looking for a man who might be drunk or perhaps mentally ill.

Eurie Martin died in 2017 after he was tased repeatedly by three Washington County deputies. (FAMILY PHOTO)
Eurie Martin died in 2017 after he was tased repeatedly by three Washington County deputies. (FAMILY PHOTO)

Michael Howell, the first deputy to make contact with Martin, asks him to identify himself. Martin continues walking, saying nothing. Copeland, who arrives a few minutes later, tells Martin to come to him and get off the road.

Martin asks them to leave him alone.

“I ain’t did nothing wrong,” he’s heard saying on the dashcam video.

Copeland, following Howell’s instruction, stuns Martin with a Taser. Martin falls to the ground, gets up, removes the Taser probe from his arm and walks away. Copeland alleges Martin took a swing at him, but some of the interaction is off camera.

Scott then uses a Taser to stun Martin on the back. Martin collapses on the ground, and as the deputies attempt to handcuff him, Howell and Copeland use Tasers on him again, according to the Supreme Court opinion.

Martin by then is down for good.

“(Video) captured the officers standing around chit-chatting and then realizing Mr. Martin was not breathing,” Davis said. “They milled around chatting as he laid there dying.”

Middle Georgia Judicial Circuit District Attorney Hayward Altman said the high court’s ruling will help the state’s case because it spells out what actions officers were allowed to take during their encounter with Martin.

Altman, whose term expires in January, will then be sworn in as an assistant district attorney so he can remain on the case.

“I made a promise to the people of Washington County to see this case through,” said Altman, who is retiring.

The trial will be the first of its kind in the Middle Georgia county, located about halfway between Atlanta and Savannah. There are no records of a white officer in Georgia ever being 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.

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